Roger Goodell's Empty Letter to the NFL

The league’s commissioner pleaded for unity while masking the issues that led to the anthem protests in the first place.

Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the National Football League, speaks at a news conference announcing an Initiative to improve the diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries in New York on March 11, 2013.
Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the National Football League, speaks at a news conference announcing an Initiative to improve the diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries in New York on March 11, 2013. (Mike Segar / Reuters / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

On Tuesday, the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to the executives and presidents of all 32 teams. Its contents concerned the most prominent topic of discussion surrounding the league recently. “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem,” he wrote. “It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.”

Goodell’s written remarks are the most official response yet to the players across the league who took a knee two and a half weeks ago, following in the footsteps of the now-unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose own anthem protest began back at the start of the 2016 season. Kaepernick’s mission was to prompt dialogue about racial inequality and white supremacy in America; the adopters of his tactic wished also to respond to a president who encouraged the firing of protesting players. The league’s initial responses supported its employees, if not quite fully. First, the minute-long commercial “Inside These Lines” called for “unity” in place of outspoken displeasure. Then, on nationally televised Monday Night Football, the Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones kneeled alongside his players—crucially, before the actual playing of the anthem. Two days before Goodell’s memo circulated, Jones laid out the limits to his support and that of his colleagues: “There is no question in my mind that the National Football League and the Dallas Cowboys are going to stand up for the flag. So we’re clear.”

Team owners pay Goodell’s ample salary; it is no surprise that his anthem stance echoes Jones’s. But the statement also continues the quieter work of shifting and softening the players’ message. The NFL is no stranger to public crises, and it has long employed deflection as its primary method of damage control. Concussions, for example, are in the league’s telling not the inevitable results of an increasingly dangerous collision sport but rather avoidable with proper tackling, as demonstrated by the official Heads Up initiative. In calling for an end to the anthem protests, Goodell turned again to the standard tack, misrepresenting core concerns and prescribing inadequate fixes.

“I’m very proud of our players and owners who have done the hard work over the past year to listen, understand and attempt to address the underlying issues within their communities,” Goodell wrote, leaving specific “underlying issues” (police brutality, racism) unmentioned. Then, in a leap of logic, Goodell designated the actions that sparked the conversation—the protests that led to the very words he was presently writing—a distraction from dialogue: “The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”

The reasoning is remarkably unsound and ignorant of the basic tenets of protest, but, of course, it’s meant to be. The purpose of Goodell’s memo is not to work toward true societal change; it is to reshape a stretch of political agitation as some kind of general do-goodery. In terms of action the league would take, he described a vague-sounding plan that “would include such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues, and that will help to promote positive change in our country.”

Above all, Goodell aims to bring back boycotting audiences, to sooth advertisers, and to retain the NFL’s status as American entertainment’s biggest tent. (Wednesday morning, President Trump tweeted in response to the letter, “It is about time that Roger Goodell of the NFL is finally demanding that all players STAND for our great National Anthem-RESPECT OUR COUNTRY.”) Goodell’s statement may be best understood as a word cloud of appeasement, an assurance to viewers that confrontational images and sound bites will soon be replaced with less jarring—and, in terms of protest, less effective—gestures.

If “sticking to sports” is no longer possible, the NFL is after what it perceives to be the next best thing: politics coated in corporate carefulness, designed to give a veneer of civic interest to an essentially apathetic money-making operation. Goodell’s tepid praise of the players’ courage and “hard work” and his criticism of their timing amount to the same broad technique, inviting fans from across the spectrum to see their worldviews reflected in their favorite sport. The league can’t avoid the political climate, despite owners’ best efforts, but it can at least fit it to the purposes of the brand. The specific cause matters less than the demographic it brings in.

It is worth revisiting, from time to time, the words of Kaepernick, the player who started all of this. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said back in the summer of 2016 when asked about his decision to kneel during the anthem. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Goodell ended Tuesday’s memo with a reminder of an upcoming executive conference: “Let’s resolve that next week we will meet this challenge in a unified and positive way.” One statement contains the recognizable stuff of contemporary life: fear, resolve, dignity, anger. The other sets a line item in an agenda.