The killing of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers has created a surprising flashpoint, an acknowledgement by previously disbelieving white people of the violence historically inflicted upon African Americans and a sudden, jarring suggestion that America is ready to deal directly with the terrible truths that violence has entailed: Police treat black citizens harshly with devastating consequences. Prosecutors are reluctant to charge police. Juries are even more reluctant to convict them. In the rare case of a conviction, judges are unwilling to punish them with firm prison sentences — if any jail time at all. Corporations across the country, including now the NFL, have pledged solidarity with their black citizens, seeking to reflect harmony by using the term “Black Lives Matter.” Since the inception of the term, law enforcement agencies have co-opted it with their own “Blue Lives Matter” while attempting to link the original with domestic terrorism — a characterization that those same corporations using the term now did little to refute then.
Included prominently in the nationwide protests is the gesture of taking a knee toward the American flag. It’s a distress signal indicating that the country has not lived up to the democratic ideals it spreads across the globe — ideals it tells soldiers that their uniforms and flag represent, ideals Americans believe separate them from countries that jail, kill and otherwise silence their citizens. It is Colin Kaepernick’s symbol, and it is used everywhere — by children and high school students who reference him as their inspiration, and now by police and politicians to quell public anger directed at them to suggest finally, after so much time, a willingness to listen.
It is also the symbol NFL owners used as justification to destroy Kaepernick’s NFL career. In 2017, it was the NFL that sent the message nationwide that kneeling was illegitimate, and by extension, criticism of police. Three years later, the NFL carries the greatest burden of any sports league to rectify the damage it now admits it has done.
After the sloganeering and statements, the NFL serves as a microcosm of the corrections Americans are now expecting. Kaepernick is not vindicated because he is still being punished. Nor did he reveal something black people did not know. He was punished for supporting them.
The league must answer the question of today’s moment: Is this a reckoning, or is it a dance? NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a recorded statement Friday night attempting to reconcile with players in response to a video players released Thursday night featuring Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes and several others demanding acknowledgement on the part of the NFL that their protests be taken seriously. But like other corporations across the country that have decried violence, racism and intolerance while barely mentioning police, Goodell offered condolences to the families affected by police brutality without acknowledging the reason people are in the streets in the first place: They want it to end.
At issue is whether Americans will undertake the journey of truth, a journey for which they have typically lacked the stamina and willpower to complete. From sports to Hollywood to politics — but predictably not from police unions — the corporate statements to engage have written a large and prominent contract with the public. But the omissions have not gone unnoticed, undermining the legitimacy of the sentiments that have captured the country. If the term “police brutality” is so incendiary that it cannot be said, how can anyone be taken seriously when they say they want to fight it?
Goodell’s statement also did not mention the name “Kaepernick,” the surest sign yet that the NFL is unserious about the actual work that needs to be done to make this right. Goodell apologized for the NFL not listening to players, and even this basic, ostensibly conciliatory statement is false. The NFL did listen to players. It listened to Malcolm Jenkins. It listened to Anquan Boldin. It listened to white players, such as Drew Brees and its white ex-players-turned-broadcasters, such as Boomer Esiason, who were offended by Kaepernick’s position. It listened to its white fans. The NFL did a lot of listening — and concluded the course of action was to punish black people — which they have not undone. Even when trying to reach the truth, Goodell still could not tell it.
Confronting the truth about racism and its effects is when America is not at its aspirational best, but its defiant, denying worst; it fails looking in the mirror at its true self in ways in which Germany and South Africa have succeeded. America has not yet proved it is willing to put in the hard work. Goodell’s statement might have helped the NFL win the short-term battle to mollify its young stars of tomorrow, but it will lose in the long term because it is not Watson or Mahomes or Odell Beckham Jr. who require the apology. It is Colin Kaepernick.
The NFL heard a warning that America was fraying, and in response constructed an entire machine to undermine Kaepernick — and became an active partner in dividing the nation. Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula conceived of the organization that would become the Players Coalition, led by Jenkins and Boldin, when he felt the league needed a player-run, black-player-headed organization to address injustice issues to neutralize Kaepernick’s influence. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross amplified it. Goodell and the NFL increased restrictions and penalties on kneeling demonstrations. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatened the employment of any player who knelt. And, of course, all 32 teams followed suit.
Part of that machine was Jay-Z at a roundtable with Goodell last year, saying of Kaepernick, “This wasn’t about him having a job. That became part of the discussion.” People at the table nodded obediently at this latest celebrity-class erasure tactic, insulting in its ridiculousness. It was absolutely about Kaepernick having a job. He didn’t have a job because he was being punished by the NFL, not because he threw a wobbly spiral, but precisely because he advocated for black people. While Jay-Z told people to move on, Kaepernick’s unemployment was an obvious part of the injustice. The NFL was the country’s primary apparatus to demonize the kneeling gesture, and indirectly condone the very issue of police brutality it now says has no place.
It is the NFL’s black fans who also require an apology from Goodell, because in punishing Kaepernick for drawing attention to the senseless killing of black citizens, the NFL chose killer cops over loyal fans, sending the message to them, as well as the players, that their concerns were unimportant compared to white fans who objected to kneeling. Black fans did not matter to the NFL. Now, Goodell could not mention Kaepernick by name but expects the public to believe that the NFL does.
Tabula rasa is the Latin phrase for “clean slate,” and at present, the image of thousands of Americans around the country kneeling in silent, somber protest to an issue contributing to the polarization of the nation is a powerful one — one that the NFL cannot legitimately embrace without wiping the slate clean with Kaepernick. There is no third way. It is not possible to have reconciliation without truth, and the only way to reach the truth is by doing the hard work, the thankless work, the painful work of absorbing it, swallowing one’s pride, admitting mistakes.
The NFL today is in real time America of the 1970s, when the country had to admit that it was wrong in its attempt to destroy Muhammad Ali. Finally, it did, and the world did not collapse, but it healed, as most wounds do with the proper treatment. A $15 billion industry that dominates the imagination of the public should have the strength to accommodate differing opinions, whether they belong to Kaepernick or Brees. But the only opinions that received league-wide punishment were Kaepernick’s. If the league, both Goodell and to another extent Brees, expect the public to believe their statements, the next step toward real truth is opening the door to signing Kaepernick — a move that has been closed for nearly four years. If it remains closed, this flashpoint will be remembered as the moment the NFL admitted it handed out a life sentence, admitted it was wrong — and still did nothing about it.