On Sunday afternoon, almost as one, the brands felt obliged to speak about the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests that have rocked America. Television networks spoke to us, sports teams spoke to us, makeup companies spoke to us. These are trying times, global corporations want us to know. But remember, Taco Bell is thinking of you.
It was thus inevitable that the NFL — a massive organization that very much considers itself part of the fabric of Americana and may be right about that in ways that are truer and uglier than it thinks — would follow suit. Unfortunately for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, there are few American executives better at sticking their foot in it than Roger Goodell.
Where do you start with this one? The fact that it doesn't even mention the word "police"? Or, for that matter, "black"? Or even "race"?
But the real outrage, of course, is that the very thing protesters are speaking out about, the thing that Goodell referred rather obliquely to as "systematic issues," is precisely what San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt to protest back in 2016. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick said at the time. "To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
Bodies in the street and people getting away with murder. Sound familiar?
But how did Goodell respond to that protest? By allowing his team owners and the heavily white and reactionary fan base (not to mention, ultimately, Donald Trump) to effectively ban Kaepernick from the sport. If Goodell truly cared about police violence, he and the league's owners have a bizarre way of showing it. To come back now and claim the league is "saddened" feels like height of hypocrisy. And people noticed.
Former NFL spokesperson (and Clinton press secretary) Joe Lockhart wrote a piece for CNN arguing that the NFL owners' collective decision not to sign Kaepernick was a financial one. According to Lockhart, owners worried that they would lose season ticket holders if they signed the player, which is a rather absurd argument that ignores the fact that a much, much higher percentage of NFL revenue comes from television contracts.
Lockhart sees his piece as a mea culpa — he admits "it was wrong" not to sign Kaepernick, and the point of the piece is that a team should now sign him — but there's a depressing logic to the way he maps out his own thinking. His justification for his work as a spokesperson for the league was that even though Kaepernick wasn't brought back into the league (which Lockhart was hoping would happen), there was ultimate good that came out of it. As he puts it, owners "were willing, though, to spend those millions to help address the problem of racial division in the country. For me, while I was uncomfortable with Colin not being signed, I told myself we were righteous in doing the hard work of making progress." (He now feels differently.)
And that, if anything, describes the mindset not just of the NFL but also of so many of these corporations telling us that they feel the pain of the protesters and African Americans who have been marginalized, profiled and even killed by police for centuries now. You may not actually do anything about injustice or inequality — like, say, signing Kaepernick or using your company to address systematic racism in American society — but if you throw money at think tanks and commissions, it makes up for it.
This is also the mindset that helped get us here in the first place. Goodell and Joe Lockhart can tell themselves that even though Kaepernick's absence from the league is a disappointment, it's offset by "initiatives."
This is the excuse people make when they do not actually want something to change. It's throwing money at the problem without realizing the problem was never addressed in the first place. Colin Kaepernick spoke out about police violence and was kicked out of his league for it. The backlash to Kaepernick was enabled by the league's reaction, as well as by the ignorant, bigoted language thrown around by pundits and politicians — and eventually the president.
This is the excuse people make when they do not actually want something to change.
Today, the president speaks of shooting looters. Kaepernick's protest was peaceful, and it didn't make a difference. In 2017, Trump said at an Alabama rally: "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b---- off the field right now'?"
The NFL then tried to make up for its mistake — or at least provide public cover for it — by all sorts of flashy commissions and "initiatives," like its Let's Listen Together campaign. But it could have saved itself all that by addressing the actual issue in the first place. Everything after that was just wasted noise and hot air. It's no wonder it didn't work. It's no wonder it didn't make a difference.
This is why Goodell's statement was so infuriating: He still didn't seem to get it. He still thought he could corporate-speak his way out of a situation. This sort of "thoughts and prayers" rhetoric and mindset is what caused the whole Kaepernick disaster in the first place. Goodell could have put public pressure on the owners of his league to sign a player who was obviously talented enough to remain in the NFL. (Remember, Kaepernick almost won a Super Bowl in 2013.)
But instead he tried to play it both ways: He claimed he's for overarching principles of "equality" but refused to sacrifice anything to get them. It didn't work then, and it's not going to work this time, either. The protests are, in many ways, about revealing America's empty platitudes for what they are. Let's shut down the useless Commissions To Address The Problem and actually address some problems. The true sin of Goodell's statement isn't simple hypocrisy. It's that he keeps doubling down on the same mistake.