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Week In Sports: NFL Commissioner Says 'We Were Wrong' About Kneeling Protests

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The National Football League announced that it was wrong not to listen to its players about racism. The commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, released a statement saying the league now encourages peaceful protest. He made no mention of the player who began the movement, former quarterback Colin Kaepernick. We'll get to the latest on that and a change of heart by Drew Brees from NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: What do we know about that video statement from the commissioner? Was it a response to the video that players released yesterday?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it certainly seems that way. Thursday, nearly 20 players, all African American and some of the league's biggest stars, they made a powerful video that included some of the players reciting names of black victims, names that have become rallying cries in the protest movement. And here's a bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEANDRE HOPKINS: I am George Floyd.

JAMAL ADAMS: I am Breonna Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED FOOTBALL PLAYER #1: I am Ahmaud Arbery.

UNIDENTIFIED FOOTBALL PLAYER #2: I am Eric Garner.

UNIDENTIFIED FOOTBALL PLAYER #3: I am Laquan McDonald.

UNIDENTIFIED FOOTBALL PLAYER #4: I am Tamir Rice.

UNIDENTIFIED FOOTBALL PLAYER #5: I am...

GOLDMAN: You know, Scott, the players also called on the NFL to make several strong statements, such as condemning racism and admitting it was wrong in silencing players from peaceful protesting.

SIMON: And what did the NFL do?

GOLDMAN: Well, just what the players asked. Late yesterday, the NFL released the video of Commissioner Goodell. And here's some of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROGER GOODELL: We at the National Football League condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We at the National Football League admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.

SIMON: Tom, what's the significance of those statements from the commissioner?

GOLDMAN: Well, the NFL has a race problem. Around 70% of the league's players are African American, but 28 of the 32 head coaches are white. Only two of 32 general managers are people of color. And, of course, Scott, the NFL has a Colin Kaepernick problem as well. You remember back in 2016, he began kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest. A handful of players joined him, and they all endured a huge backlash. And to this day, Kaepernick still doesn't have an NFL job. So for Goodell to say the league was wrong for not listening to these players, for him to condemn racism, that's significant. Will we see Kaepernick get a job? Will we see more minority hires in important positions? That'll be even more significant.

SIMON: With Commissioner Goodell's statement and so many players speaking up and speaking openly now, has the landscape of professional football changed?

GOLDMAN: You know, it feels like it's changing. The Drew Brees story from this week I think is an indication. Brees is the star quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. In an interview, he said he'll never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag. There was a huge backlash. Fellow players, even teammates, criticized Brees. He made several heartfelt apologies as a result. President Trump, who several years ago called NFL protesters SOBs, he said Brees shouldn't have apologized, and Trump again said no one should ever kneel to protest the American flag.

But then, Scott, late yesterday - and this is where things seem different - Brees answered. He wrote directly to the president on social media, and he said this. I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It's 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. Scott, for one of the NFL's most accomplished and popular players, a white player, to say that, standing up to the president, that sure seems like change.

SIMON: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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