The world in 2020 is entirely too different, and entirely too similar, to the one Colin Kaepernick first kneeled in four years ago.
Though a global pandemic has reshaped the way many day-to-day lives unfold, the reasons Kaepernick took a knee endure, brought to the forefront of society’s collective consciousness by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Their deaths at the hands of police officers sparked protests demanding justice, demanding reform, demanding the world recognize that Black lives matter.
For those privileged enough to have this moment be their awakening to racial injustice, it’s forced eyes and hearts to be opened, hard truths and the actions they necessitate to be reckoned with.
Looking at the world now, and looking back on when Kaepernick first took a knee, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wishes he’d listened sooner.
“Well the first thing I’d say is I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to,” Goodell said during a Sunday appearance on the show Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, when the host, former linebacker Emmanuel Acho, asked what he would say in a public apology to Kaepernick.
“We had invited him in several times to have the conversation, to have the dialogue, I wish we had the benefit of that. We never did.”
Other conversations did take place, Goodell said. Ones with Kenny Stills, Malcolm Jenkins, Anquan Boldin and Eric Reid — who joined Kaepernick in not standing for the anthem. Through them, Goodell said he gained a better understanding of “what was going on in the communities.”
Though the words ‘I’m sorry’ did not make their way into what Goodell’s answer, some proof of progress did — especially when measured against his initial response to Kaepernick kneeling.
“I don’t necessarily agree with what he’s doing,” Goodell said back in 2016. “I support our players when they want to see change in society, and we don’t live in a perfect society. On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL. I personally believe very strongly in that.”
The framing put kneeling at odds with the idea of being a patriot, an interpretation that resonated with United States president Donald Trump, who amplified the message on Twitter.
“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” Trump tweeted. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
Kaepernick would not play again after that season, the league’s apparent disinterest in signing ‘Kaepernick the player’ so deeply intertwined with its apparent disinterest in signing ‘Kaepernick the activist’ that the former 49er filed a grievance against the league, which was eventually settled.
By May 2018, more than a year after Kaepernick played his final NFL game and entered a state of being perpetually unsigned, the NFL ruled that players could no longer kneel during the national anthem without leaving themselves open to punishment.
Last night, Goodell sought to set the record straight about what kneeling during the anthem means.
“It is not about the flag,” Goodell said. “The message here, what our players are doing, is being mis-characterized. These are not people who are unpatriotic. They’re not disloyal. They’re not against our military. In fact, many of those guys were in the military and they’re a military family.
“What they were trying to do is exercise their right to bring attention to something that needs to get fixed. That misrepresentation of who they were and what they were doing was a thing that really gnawed at me.”
The message aligns more neatly with Goodell’s comments from earlier this year.
After the NFL initially released a statement five days after Floyd’s death that did not mention player protests or racism, the league issued a follow-up saying it was wrong for not listening to players earlier, and encouraged all to speak out and peacefully protest — though it is not yet clear if kneeling for the anthem will, indeed, be deemed acceptable by the league.
Within that followup, Goodell made clear that he understood there would be no NFL without Black players, and said he would both listen and reach out to those who have raised their voices in an effort to be a better league. The listening was a start. But, Goodell says, it was not the final step in him truly understanding.
“When I listened to them, I heard it — and I’ll try to make that distinction,” Goodell said. “I heard it and I believed it. But when you go and you sit in on one of those bail hearings, or you go on the ride-along and you see people, you go talk to a parent who’s lost their child because of police brutality, it’s better than hearing. You feel it. You know it and you see it and when that happens, it’s really powerful.”
Of course, if listening is the first step and understanding is the second, then enacting meaningful change must follow in its wake. Words alone will not prevent future tragedies.
To that end, moved by the haunting images of Floyd’s death, Goodell said he wishes he’d done more than listen to Kaepernick, too.
“It was horrific to see that play out on the screen,” Goodell said. “There was a part of me that said, ‘I hope people realize that’s what the players were protesting.’ And that’s what’s been going on in our communities. You see it now on television but that’s been going on for a long, long time. And that’s where we should have listened sooner.
“And we should have been in there with them, understanding it and figuring out what we can do as the NFL — we can’t solve all the problems, Emmanuel, we can’t. But we’re big in our communities. We have a platform, we have an opportunity and we’re using that effectively now. I wish we could have been doing it earlier.”