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NFL must bridge its expansive racial divide

Comments made by Drew Brees and Vic Fangio have caused serious damage

From his position atop professional sports’ most powerful organization, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is anything but a sympathetic figure. That established, there’s no arguing that with race again at the center of a national crisis, Goodell’s job has been made immeasurably harder by high-profile white people in the overwhelmingly black league he leads.

In a 24-hour period, current and former black NFL officials blasted Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio for saying he doesn’t “see racism at all in the NFL.” Then New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees essentially told Fangio to hold his beer, the future Hall of Famer igniting a firestorm across the sports landscape by reaffirming his stance that he will “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America” during an interview with Yahoo Finance.

Fangio later apologized and Brees, in a lengthy response to ESPN on Wednesday, expressed love and respect for his teammates, saying, “I stand right there with them in regards to fighting for racial equality and justice.” Then in an Instagram post on Thursday, Brees apologized for beliefs he has strongly held for years. Judge the sincerity of both reversals for yourself. Regardless, the damage was done.

The backlash was harshest against Brees. On social media, many rebuked the passer headed into his 20th season and future Hall of Famer, including Saints teammate Malcolm Jenkins in an emotional video post and NBA superstar LeBron James.

For Goodell and his top lieutenants, the controversial comments by a head coach and a franchise passer would have been problematic even in the best of times. These, obviously, are not the best of times regarding matters of race, both in the nation and in the NFL.

The United States was plunged into turmoil after the killing of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis. Across the country, violent protests raged for days in many major cities as demonstrators demanded justice for the family of Floyd, a black man, who died after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. Chauvin was fired and charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other police officers were also fired and were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

Over in the NFL, Goodell recently pushed through an ambitious, multipronged plan intended to address the league’s awful record in inclusive hiring at the club level. He’s trying to prove to frustrated black executives and coaches that substantive change is finally on the horizon in a league — whose on-field workforce is nearly 70% black — that will begin the 2020 season with only four black and Latino head coaches and two black general managers. In terms of building goodwill, Fangio and Brees didn’t do Goodell any favors.

Not that anyone will shed a tear for Goodell.

The fact is, whether rightly or wrongly, many league observers view Goodell as the leader of the movement to erase quarterback Colin Kaepernick from NFL history for having the temerity to first sit and then kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to draw attention to police brutality and systemic oppression back in 2016. Since the end of that season, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback hasn’t played in the league, his career all but officially ending the moment he filed a collusion grievance against Goodell’s billionaire bosses, which the league settled in 2019.

Throughout that period, as the accomplished Kaepernick remained unsigned, Goodell maintained the company line that teams would offer Kaepernick a contract if they thought Kaepernick could help them win. Meanwhile, quarterbacks who couldn’t drop back and chew gum at the same time were on rosters throughout the league.

Then there was the debacle of the NFL’s ill-conceived workout for Kaepernick in December, which only occurred because Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation has partnered with the league, pushed for it to occur, league sources said. That was on Goodell’s watch as well.

Goodell also has had some self-inflicted wounds, such as the tepid statement attributed to him after Floyd’s death, which critics correctly noted didn’t include any mention of police brutality and systemic racism. That the NFL issued a statement at all smacked of hypocrisy, many claimed, because Kaepernick was run out of the league for peacefully protesting what happened to Floyd.

Although all of that is part of Goodell’s record, the ledger also includes his work to make hiring more diverse and his backing of players striving to help underprivileged communities, leaders in both arenas who sit across the table from Goodell insist. He can’t afford to have his work with them undermined by misguided comments.

There’s so much evidence that owners have repeatedly passed overqualified candidates of color in head coaching searches, it might as well be in flashing red neon. By ignoring all the markers in plain sight, Fangio reinforced the widespread belief among black executives and coaches that Goodell, despite his best efforts, won’t succeed at even making a dent in the wrongheaded, racist culture permeating a league that turns 101 on Aug. 20. USC law professor Jody David Armour understands their concerns.

Armour, who studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making, was not surprised by Fangio’s comments. He has heard them before.

“The NFL, in many ways, is a microcosm of society. And there are polls out there, polls of white people, that show 56% of white people say black people are not discriminated against in America today,” said Armour, author of Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America. “What that coach is saying, as out of touch as it may sound, is actually very much consistent with how a lot of white people view social reality in America.

“It’s almost like climate-change denial. When you talk to people who are climate-change deniers, they seem impervious to facts. They seem impervious to information. And that’s what you’re dealing with here. When it comes to race, you have climate-change deniers in the NFL. You might call it, ‘Racial-injustice deniers.’ They are impervious to facts that in any way contradicts their self-justifying, self-satisfying, self-aggrandizing way of looking at the world.”

As troublesome as Fangio’s comments were for a league struggling with major issues involving race and opportunity, Brees’ words could have a longer-lasting incendiary impact.

For years, Brees has been consistent on his opinion about kneeling during the anthem. At this moment, though, Brees was completely tone-deaf to go there again.

“With all of these people in the streets, and it’s so clear what time it is, for you to pick this moment to make that statement, to really go after Kaepernick, to essentially go after the protesters, it takes a special kind of hubris,” Armour said. “The kind of hubris that says, ‘There’s only one way to look at the world, I have a monopoly on gospel truth and I can whitesplain to black people and black teammates about what the flag means.’ That’s what he’s doing.

“He is pointing a pious finger at protesters and declaring that you don’t care about this country if you protest that way. It’s as if he’s completely oblivious to the fact that what the people who are protesting are saying is that this country doesn’t care about them. So you’re going to point your finger at me? You’re going to point your finger at me and try to stain me for not caring enough about this country when this country doesn’t care about me?”

Count on Saints senior management to quell the Jenkins-Brees beef quickly. But even if both players eventually claim they’ve moved on while saying all the right things publicly, Jenkins’ scars are visible. He won’t forget this. Brees also faces issues with other black players, both in the Saints locker room and around the league. Folks are hot.

Just when Goodell hoped he could point to progress, albeit only incremental, on something of great importance to African Americans in the NFL, Fangio and Brees took questions. And now, Goodell must confront more hard ones about how to bridge the league’s expansive racial divide.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.