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Four years after Colin Kaepernick, history is repeating itself for the NFL

How the league responds this time around will have even bigger implications for its players

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A perfect storm is forming in the distance.

With each passing day, it increases in strength, gaining momentum with every new statement of support by NFL players united against inequality.

While the world waits for football to return, the killing of George Floyd has taken center stage in the hearts and minds of players. And their collective unwillingness to be silenced is the kinetic energy behind the tsunami that threatens to drown the NFL in a tidal wave of Black Lives Matter remarks and potentially shrinking bottom lines.

While this feels like a new day, it in many ways is familiar territory for the league. The same conditions that were in play in 2016 — the year Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and the racial oppression of people of color in America — still exist four years later. It’s an election year. Donald Trump is a main character on the political stage. Fans threatening to boycott if there’s kneeling during the anthem. Billionaire owners afraid of losing money. And players unwilling to “stick to sports.”

The NFL is again heading toward a collision course of business priorities vs. social justice ideals. And this time, a lucrative TV deal years in the making is also in play.

It’s a precarious position for the NFL to be in. And it’s unclear whether the league is better equipped now to handle the organic protests of its players and the financial ramifications that could come with their free speech. One thing is clear though: President Trump is determined to keep the spotlight on the anthem and, specifically, the commissioner.

Minutes before midnight Monday, Trump tweeted: “Could it be even remotely possible that in Roger Goodell’s rather interesting statement of peace and reconciliation, he was intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?”

TV ratings plummeted in 2016 and 2017, and Trump blasted kneeling players with derogatory speech and encouraged fans to boycott the NFL. At the time, the league failed to forcefully defend its players and instead tried to squelch protests during the anthem — a move Goodell now admits was a mistake.

But whether planned or unintentional, kneeling has now become the symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement. And conversations with multiple players, general managers, personnel executives and scouts this week indicate many within the NFL expect a record number of players to kneel during the anthem starting in Week 1.

“I think more white guys will be kneeling as well,” one general manager said in a text message.

It’s a no-win situation for a corporation driven by money. But the league can’t quiet its players without appearing hypocritical. Not now. Not after several stars, including Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham Jr., Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Jarvis Landry and Tyrann Mathieu collectively asked, “How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players? What will it take? For one of us to be murdered by police brutality?”

Not after Goodell was compelled to acknowledge their powerful video with one of his own. “I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country,” the commissioner said in a video response released Friday evening. “Without black players, there would be no National Football League, and the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff.”

But what is it that business people care most about? Money. And because of the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 is already a wash, financially speaking.

Goodell: We, the NFL, admit we were wrong in not listening to players earlier

Although the season is expected to start on time in September, the fiscal ramifications of the COVID-19 outbreak can’t be understated. Especially when there’s a real possibility fans won’t be filling up stadiums anytime soon. Using 2018 figures, Forbes recently estimated that the league would lose $5.5 billion of stadium revenue — i.e., 38% of its total revenue. No fans also mean no sales for concessions, tickets or merchandise, no parking or luxury suite revenue, and no local sponsorship ads. And that lost business makes the negotiations on the NFL’s broadcasting rights all the more important.

TV ratings have been on the rise in recent years, a positive sign — and a good bit of leverage — for a league looking to capitalize on its marketable product before its contracts with networks, such as CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN, are up.

Four years ago, kneeling players were deemed bad for business by the NFL, which aimed to straddle the middle on pregame protests during the national anthem against police brutality and racial oppression in an effort to appease players while also not upsetting its core base.

But Goodell & Co. will appear hypocritical if they employ that same tactic this time around. The league could wait until Week 1 to see whether the vocal majority of fans who were once enraged by kneeling players have now softened their stance. But if owners still fear pregame protests will result in lower TV ratings and lost revenue, the NFL can handle the situation in one of two ways:

  • Work with player leadership before the season starts to devise plans for larger-scale protests and community outreach that take place outside of the playing of the anthem.
  • Or, stop playing the anthem altogether or not have players on the field while it’s played. (In 2009, it became mandatory for players to be on the field during the anthem after the U.S. Department of Defense paid the NFL millions to honor members of the military.)

Consider how different things would have been had Goodell expressed support for Kaepernick’s right to protest and an understanding of the quarterback’s desire to dismantle racist structures within society. Imagine how different things would have been had owners — the billionaires running profitable franchises composed of predominantly black rosters — said they understood why players wanted to address police brutality and policy reform.

Chicago Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks admitted last week that he wanted to kneel in the past, but instead stood during the anthem for fear that “my job, my career, my life is over. I will be blackballed. And then to come out on the other end and watch it actually happen to Kaepernick, it just tells me my feelings were real. It was the reality, and hopefully it won’t be going forward.”

Some in NFL circles believe owners are hoping the kneeling debate won’t take center stage again, as was the case on Friday, when Trump tweeted that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees “should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag.”

Brees, however, didn’t back down from Trump. Instead, he responded to the president with a post that read, “I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.”

But most often, conversations with members of the league suggest front-office members have “seen the light” in recent days and won’t have the same corporate mindset they did during the height of the Kaepernick controversy. Time will tell, of course. But Trump’s latest tweet about the NFL has again put Goodell in the White House’s crosshairs.

The issues surrounding the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are by no means new. But in some ways, it feels like a tectonic shift has taken place, not only in global awareness of systemic racism and police brutality, but in the newfound freedom NFL players feel to voice what they believe is right.

They are done being afraid. And they’re done being pawns without agency.

“We will not be silenced,” stars such as Mahomes, Watson and Barkley asserted in their poignant, powerful video. “We assert our right to peacefully protest. It shouldn’t take this long to admit.”

“We will not be silenced. We assert our right to peacefully protest. It shouldn’t take this long to admit.”

We have never before witnessed NFL players, coaches and team executives, of all races, on this scale, speaking out in support of human rights. Never before have we watched Goodell acknowledge on camera, “we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”

Future actions will mean much more than words uttered three months before the start of the season. But, at the very least, the NFL has a chance to show that it learned a valuable lesson over the past four years.

That it can’t be on the wrong side of history. Not again.

Kimberley A. Martin covers the NFL for ESPN.