NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has done something that most heads of companies would not survive. In a public statement, he admitted that he and the league had been wrong to punish players for taking political stances on the field.
The powerful statement showed support for players being allowed to demonstrate on the field. By saying “we admit we were wrong for not listening to players earlier” and promising to engage with black players on working together to improve society, Goodell admitted that the NFL had been wrong in its previous position.
This is a big swing in approach as only four years ago the league made conscious changes to its constitution to allow it to take punitive action against players who knelt during the national anthem. However, the recent upswing of protests and more players engaging in support of the Black Lives Matter protests was a much-needed catalyst for the change of stance.
The change was an obvious choice when you consider 70 per cent of the league is black.
The commissioner has certainly steered the league through some tough times, including the identification of links between American football and life-long brain trauma and ‘Bountygate’, among some other critical issues.
Goodell took the position of commissioner in 2006 and immediately took a hardline approach. During the preceding years, the league had suffered some disastrous PR as players seemed out of control off the field. One of the first promises that Goodell made was to “protect the badge” and become the new sheriff in town.
At the time, both the owners and players knew that an image shift was needed and ‘The Comish’ set about implementing a new NFL Personal Conduct Policy. Some high-profile names fell foul of the new strict rules making sure players behaved between the lines but, just as importantly, off the field.
In 2011 Goodell worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring players and owners to a mutual agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement that brought an end to a five-month player lockout, in turn saving the season.
Just a year later the negotiations stance was harder as he hired low-level college referees to take charge of the officiating for a few weeks before owners realised they needed the full-time referees back to maintain the quality of the game.
Back in 2016, the NFL had a problem with players using their platform to challenge social injustice across the states. These players, led by Colin Kaepernick, started with the simple action of kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.
Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers at the time and now prominent civil rights activist, spoke up about the unfair treatment of black people in police custody. The fight became international news as more players joined the protest and TV stations began to show players making a stand. Under heavy pressure, the league responded to TV, advertisers and government pressure, introducing a rule that made it mandatory to stand for the anthem. Multiple fines were handed out to players who continued the protest.
During the protest, Kaepernick was released from his contract and has not found another job within the league.
So, while Goodell coming out and stating that the league will now support peaceful protests on the field was a surprise, it will still not remove the most significant stain on a very successful tenure for the commissioner.
Goodell has been an asset to the NFL and will be remembered as one of the best. His reign as commissioner has overseen the NFL receiving record TV contracts, an international expansion program and two collective bargaining agreements that have benefitted the business and players. But he will always have a dark cloud hanging over his 16-year charge. Friday’s statement was an acknowledgement of a previous mistake, but it’s too little too late.
What Goodell said was much-needed, but it was also four years too late. The NFL should be praised for making these changes now, but the league shouldn’t be commended. The owners and Goodell had their chance to lead, to stand with the black community. Let us not forget they chose the profiteering route first and that blemish should stay with Goodell no matter his intentions now.
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