Even before Floyd’s killing and the nationwide protests that ensued, the NFL made a lot of promises to an understandably skeptical African American community. Black fans overwhelmingly supported Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest against police violence in 2016, but the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback became persona non grata to conservative franchise owners. In 2018, the NFL committed nearly $90 million to the Players Coalition—a group of current and former NFL players seeking to advance social justice—in what was seen as the league’s attempt to get players to stop kneeling during the national anthem. At the time, Goodell said he wanted to “get beyond what we call protest to progress, get to the point where we can make that positive change, because people come to our stadiums to be entertained, have fun, not be protested to.”
In August 2019, the NFL tapped the rapper and entertainment mogul Jay-Z and his company, Roc Nation, to oversee the league’s Super Bowl halftime show. The partnership also includes a collaboration on the league’s “Inspire Change” campaign, a 10-year, $250 million initiative to “support the battle against the ongoing and historic injustices faced by African-Americans.” The league ran an ad during last year’s Super Bowl that highlighted the killing of Botham Jean by a Dallas police officer and another that featured the former NFL player Anquan Boldin talking about his cousin Corey Jones, who was fatally shot by a police officer while waiting for a tow truck.
All of these gestures, while well intentioned and useful in drawing attention to the persistence of racial inequity in the United States, do nothing to address the historic injustices that continue to fester inside the league. In fairness, Goodell works for the NFL’s owners. Ultimately, he can do only so much to advance racial progress, since it’s the owners who choose their team presidents, general managers, and head coaches. But the evidence suggests that Goodell and the owners vowed to work for racial healing not because it was the right thing to do, but because they believed the players’ peaceful protests were hurting the bottom line.
If America’s—and the NFL’s—ongoing racial reckoning shows anything, it’s that the public should compare what is said with what is done. After police in Wisconsin shot a Black man named Jacob Blake in the back last summer, the Eagles’ owner, Jeffrey Lurie, told reporters, “There’s so much pain both in our country and around the world, and obviously we’re going through two terrible, terrible pandemics—one that’s existed for the history of our entire country, the pandemic of systemic racism, violence to minorities, oppression, all that kind of activities that have been part of our history; and obviously the once-in-the-last-100-years health pandemic that’s been devastating as well.” As teams were canceling practices to process Blake’s shooting, the Dallas Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, a close friend of then-President Donald Trump’s who is known to be politically conservative, said: “I want our team to be a part of change.” And yet, according to a USA Today report, the Eagles haven’t hired a person of color as either head coach or general manager since 1999, and the Cowboys have never done so.
The NFL can’t keep saying one thing and doing another if it wants to be considered a real ally to the Black community. The league is rife with hypocrisy and double standards that go well beyond a relaxed dress code for an interview. The NFL owners have sent the message that they’d rather hire Black men as laborers than as leaders.