The State of Play: For better and for worse, Goodell’s apology reveals a lot about America

I want to make something abundantly clear: Black lives matter, unapologetically and unequivocally. 

The fact that this statement remains remotely controversial after the events of the past several weeks, years and centuries is confounding, but nevertheless, it does. 

For swaths of Americans — particularly the more resentful, privileged and light of skin among us — the statement elicits discomfort, collective groans and, in many instances, rage. 

The same could have been said for the NFL. Though the league never verbally excoriated its players, it was still rage that fueled the bulk of the league’s response when the issue reached its last peak in 2017. That’s when players across the league began kneeling during the national anthem and our schmuck-in-chief Donald Trump responded by demanding team owners “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now!”

Within a year, league owners acted and established a policy that all players and team personnel must “show respect for the flag and the anthem” or else risk being fined. The policy was never enforced, but the stance of America’s most popular professional sport was clear. 

That stance changed Friday. 

“We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said during a video statement posted to the league’s official Twitter account. “We, the NFL, believe Black lives matter.” 

Goodell’s statement might be empty virtue signaling or a mere performative gesture. Still, it reveals a lot about where the United States is right now. 

For starters, Goodell’s admission of the league’s guilt and condemnation of racism means that Americans’ general attitudes toward race might finally be changing for the first time in a long time. 

If you have a social media account and aren’t a resentful right-winger, you know exactly what I’m talking about. 

I have never seen more white people publicly admitting their guilt and expressing disgust at racism and systematic oppression. I’m not just talking about Jacobin-reading lefties either — they’ve been on this train for a while — I’m talking about very, very white people, the type of white person I know voted for Trump, saying that what’s been done to the United States’ Black community is bullshit and we have to start holding racists accountable for it. 

This isn’t just a hunch; data tells the same story. In 2016, a Reuters poll found that 72% of Americans thought Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem was unpatriotic, and 61% said they didn’t support his protest. Now, new polling shows that a majority of Americans believe that racism and discrimination in the United States is a “big problem” and believe that protesters’ anger is justified. 

In light of these developments and Goodell’s apology, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: After years of feckless conduct, the president just might be in trouble. 

The last time we saw Trump and Goodell’s names in the same headline, the commissioner was metaphorically on his knees, kowtowing to team owners who were more interested in censuring and villainizing their players than supporting them. 

The fact that the commissioner felt safe enough to issue the statement that he did without even consulting team owners means that Trump’s position and the public standing of those who support him is more precarious than ever. 

Think of it this way: When Kaepernick took his kneel-heard-round-the-world in 2016, the ramifications on NFL viewership were so dramatic that the league issued an internal memo addressing the matter. League viewership declined 11% and a Rasmussen study found that nearly one-third of participants were “less likely to watch an NFL game” because of players’ protests. The next season, as players’ protests continued, viewership significantly declined again. 

With that experience in mind, Goodell is basically offering a polite fuck-you to any racist who might threaten to boycott the NFL again. He’s not afraid of the financial consequences this time around, and that’s probably because he doesn’t think he’ll face any this time around. He knows that, as the aforementioned data suggests, American society is less Trump-ish than it was four years ago, and his apology reflects that. 

At the end of the day, I can’t really assign any conclusive moral judgement to Goodell’s apology. Was it a step in the right direction? Yes. Whenever an American institution as prominent as the NFL makes a public about-face like this, it is significant. It forces the NFL’s less savory and more racist contingent to reckon with truths that they previously drowned out with Sunday Night Football and Fox News. 

Still, Goodell’s statement failed to even name Colin Kaepernick and did not address the fact that only four out of the NFL’s 32 head coaches are Black and only two of its 32 general managers are Black. 

These issues will persist unless Goodell follows up his apology with sustained, meaningful engagement and action. I’m talking about big donations, unrelenting public advocacy and continuous support for the league’s politically active players, coaches and personnel. 

In conclusion, I guess the takeaway is this. In recent days and weeks, two four-star generals have expressed withering disapproval of Trump. Hell, Mitt Romney — yes, Mitt Romney — marched with protesters in Washington D.C. and declared “Black lives matter.” Now, the head of the NFL, the embodiment of all things American and bald-eagle-related, has said the same, and I think it’s made several things very clear. 

In the minds of an increasing American majority, Black lives matter. That’s good news for the country and a disastrous development for Trump.

Stuart Carson is a rising senior writing about the intersection of sports, politics and American society. His column, “The State of Play,” runs every other Wednesday.