NFL commissioner Roger Goodell closed out a turbulent week Friday by admitting in a video that the league has erred in how it has dealt with NFL player protests of police brutality and systemic racism over the past few years.
The video, which ran for 1 minute, 21 seconds, was a response to a series of requests put forth Thursday by more than a dozen star players, including Pro Bowl quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. In that video, the players asked the NFL to condemn racism, admit wrong in previous attempts to silence peaceful protests and to affirm that black lives matter. Goodell repeated their words nearly verbatim in his video.
"We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people," he said. "We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe that black lives matter."
Goodell went on to say that he would begin connecting with players who are making their voices heard and added: "Without black players, there would be no National Football League, and the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff."
He continued: "We are listening. I am listening. And I will be reaching out to players who have raised their voices and others on how we can improve and go forward for a better and more united NFL family."
Goodell didn't specify any players during the video.
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas was a key organizer of the video by the players, which he opened with the statement: "It's been 10 days since George Floyd was brutally murdered." The players then took turns asking the question, "What if I was George Floyd?" The video closed with the players insisting they "will not be silenced."
After Goodell's video was released, Thomas tweeted: "Well said Roger."
Led by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, some NFL players began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to call attention to racial injustices. The demonstrations prompted a caustic national debate, with NFL owners taking the side of those who thought players should stand during the anthem because it was being perceived as a sign of disrespect for the flag. The players insisted the demonstrations weren't about the flag at all, nor a statement of their patriotism, and grew angry that their original point was lost amid questions about the flag.
Kaepernick was never offered a contract after the 49ers released him following the 2016 season, and he settled a collusion claim with the league in 2019.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees rekindled the issue this week amid the national unrest over the death of Floyd in Minneapolis, for which one police officer has been charged with second-degree murder. Three others have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Asked what he would think if players kneeled this season to protest the death of Floyd and others at the hands of police, Brees told Yahoo Finance: "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag."
Brees' reference of the flag, rather than the death of Floyd or the anguish of black people around the country, drew heated backlash from dozens of players across multiple sports. He has since apologized in multiple social media posts, but the issue remains raw among players throughout the NFL.
While Brees' apologies did not directly address his personal attitude toward protesting during the national anthem, they still drew a response from President Donald Trump on Friday, who tweeted twice to say the quarterback "should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our American flag" and that there should be no kneeling.
Brees issued a lengthy response to Trump's criticism in an Instagram post later Friday, in which he stood by his earlier apology for his anti-kneeling comments. He also emphasized that wake-up calls to address police brutality and systemic racial bias in the U.S. are "not an issue about the American flag" and advised against continuing to use "the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities."