Just three days after issuing a statement that Brian Flores’s racial discrimination suit was “without merit,” the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell are oafishly changing tactics. Following a backlash both inside and outside the league against their initial hardline stance, Goodell has now lurched toward a more conciliatory position. Don’t trust it. Goodell’s new letter is a display of gaslighting and corporate doublespeak that takes great care to not expose “the Shield” to more lawsuits. This missive from the desk of Roger Goodell begins by saying, “I want to address a subject that many of us have discussed together, not only this week but for many years.”
Translation: “Oh. You’re upset that there is only one Black head coach among the 32 teams? Well, we’re upset too! All on the same side in the long march against racism.”
He then ups the ante: “Racism and any form of discrimination is contrary to the NFL’s values.” This is a lie, clear to anyone who knows the mathematics of the NFL’s hiring patterns. No, this is a league that fetishizes the projection of Black talent and Black bodies under the rule of white authority. The statement is also a cowardly broadside at Flores. “How could anyone accuse the NFL of such a thing given our values. Haven’t you seen the ‘end racism’ decals on the helmets?”
But then Goodell makes a clumsy pivot toward reconciliation, saying that the NFL recognizes that there are “concerns” and that it would enlist a super-special outside committee to “reevaluate and examine all policies, guidelines, and initiatives relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion.” This is on the face very confusing. If three days ago the lawsuit was “without merit,” then why is there now a need for an outside committee to investigate? If racism and discrimination are “contrary to the NFL’s values,” then why, 30 years after Art Shell broke the coaching color line, is this display of apartheid athletics getting worse? Goodell should not be permitted to speak about “the NFL” as if that Park Avenue entity is somehow divorced from the 32 people who run the franchises and whose employment patterns created this crisis.
Then at the end of the letter, there are three sentences that reveal an even deeper owner’s-box vulnerability than decades of racist hiring practices. As a part of Flores’s lawsuit, he tells the story of Miami Dolphins franchise owner Stephen Ross offering him $100,000 for every loss in order to secure a high draft pick—money that Flores refused. For Flores, this is part of a consistent pattern of having Black head coaches helm disasters and then firing them at the first opportunity of a high draft pick and possible turn around, something Flores knew could, and eventually did, happen to him. But that part of it is not what upset Goodell. At a time when the NFL is cozying up to the gambling industry like a pair of united lost loves, any idea that these games are not being played on the up-and-up could affect that partnership. After waxing rhapsodic about diversity and inclusion, Goodell writes bluntly, “We also take seriously any issue relating to the integrity of NFL games. These matters will be reviewed thoroughly and independently. We expect these independent experts will receive full cooperation from everyone associated with the league or any member club as this work proceeds.”
Flores’s lawyer responded by pointing out that Flores has not heard from Goodell despite efforts at direct contact. He finished with the kind response, “On the surface, [this is] a positive first step, but we suspect that this is more of a public relations ploy than real commitment to change.”
Of course, it’s a public relations ploy. After the “without merit” response fell flatter than a medical lecture from Aaron Rodgers, Goodell saw a need to tack away from the charges of racism and game-throwing and toward the Super Bowl and the easily digestible, family friendly story lines that come with what is traditionally the most watched spectacle in the United States. Now, every time a reporter asks about these issues, instead of sweating under the hot lights, he can say, “That’s why we have an outside committee.” For Goodell, these kinds of embarrassing, risible contortions are why he’s makes a staggering $64 million a year. It’s not proud work to front for billionaire racists by proclaiming a commitment to fighting racism or to commit your league passionately to a lucrative industry that will send new generations into fits of financial duress or even addiction, but it certainly does pay.