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.