As we attempt to understand the meeting between many of the leading activist athletes in the NFL, the Players Association, and franchise owners on Tuesday, as well as Roger Goodell’s train wreck of a press conference on Wednesday, it’s important to remember where we started.
In the summer of 2016, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by police in Minnesota and Louisiana, respectively. Their deaths were videotaped, and the footage went viral. People mourned. People raged. People protested. And, starting with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, NFL players—in a historically unprecedented fashion—joined this fight. They took a knee or sat or raised a fist during the playing of the national anthem precisely to make people—fans, sponsors, media, team owners—uncomfortable and raise awareness. Now, after 14 months, what do we know?
Kaepernick might have sacrificed his career for this movement. The other players who either took a knee with Colin last year or started this year have received death threats. They’ve lost sponsors. They’ve been threatened with suspension by team owners. They were mocked by sports-media hucksters, who laughed at the thought that they were accomplishing anything. They’ve had their jobs imperiled and been cursed by a president who, despite his own behavior, has the nerve to lecture people about patriotism. Yet they still persevered. And what did it get them? This week we found out.
First, before the meetings had even started, Roger Goodell co-signed a letter on NFL stationery with Seattle Seahawk Doug Baldwin that was sent to the US Congress in support of a bill called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. The bill would reduce minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The letter read, “Over the last two seasons, one particular issue that has come to the forefront for our players and our teams is the issue of justice for all.… These expressions of player advocacy aptly capture the challenges we currently face as a nation—ensuring that every American has equal rights and equal protection under the law.” It’s hardly radical legislation, but in the era of Jeff Sessions and his dreams of an extra-strength New Jim Crow, it matters.
Then, at the meeting between Goodell and a select group of team owners, no changes to the rules were made to coerce players to line up, helmet in hand, for the playing of the national anthem, much to Trump’s Twitter rage. NFL owners are now basically acknowledging that Trump’s call to “force players to stand for the anthem” would cause a full-scale rebellion. This was a victory: an affirmation both of what’s in their collective-bargaining agreement and of their First Amendment rights.