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Roger Goodell wishes the NFL ‘had listened earlier’ to Colin Kaepernick, supports players who kneel

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell directly addressed Colin Kaepernick in an interview released Sunday, saying “I wish we had listened earlier” to the former quarterback who in 2016 began kneeling during the pregame playing of the national anthem in a protest that continues to reverberate.

Explaining what he would say to Kaepernick now, Goodell told former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho: “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. We invited him in several times to have the conversation, to have the dialogue. I wish we had the benefit of that. We never did. We would have benefited from that. Absolutely.”

Goodell’s comments were his latest revisiting of the stance he and the NFL had taken on player protests about police brutality and racial inequality. Goodell’s comments about Kaepernick were made during the first segment of a two-part interview on Acho’s digital series, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.”

In early June, Goodell filmed a video in which he said the league was “wrong in silencing our players for peacefully protesting” police brutality and social injustice during the national anthem. That extraordinary admission was spurred by a video featuring the league’s young stars, including Patrick Mahomes, but absent from Goodell’s statement was an apology to or a mention of Kaepernick.

What made Roger Goodell say ‘Black Lives Matter’ and where it leaves the NFL

Goodell said the video featuring Mahomes and others — made in the wake of protests initially ignited by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer — helped change his mind. “I’m a big believer in dialogue, and frankly I talk to my kids and others all the time, and you really don’t learn until you’re uncomfortable,” Goodell told Acho.

Goodell explained how his father, Charles, changed his stance on the Vietnam War as a member of the U.S. Senate in the 1960s. Appointed to the New York Senate seat after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Goodell realized it could cost him reelection — and it did. Roger Goodell pointed to his father’s change on the war, saying “what was going on in the communities” led to his own evolution.

“I didn’t know what was going on in the communities” regarding protests of police brutality and racial inequality, Roger Goodell continued. “When I had the chance to sit with our players — I never had the chance to sit with Kaep. But I talked with Kenny Stills a lot. Eric Reid. Malcolm Jenkins, Anquan Boldin, so many other players,” he said, naming players who had knelt during the anthem. “Some of them sacrificed a great deal.”

Kaepernick has been out of the league since 2017, with teams unwilling to sign him despite Goodell being a quiet ally in a workout for clubs last fall. Along the way, Kaepernick became a focal point of criticism from President Trump, although he has softened that in recent months. Meanwhile, Kaepernick is crafting a legacy larger than the success he had on the football field.

Trump, Vice President Pence and others have characterized the anthem protests as showing an unpatriotic disrespect for the military and the flag even though Kaepernick and players have made it clear from the outset that they were seeking to raise awareness of social injustice.

“It is not about the flag,” Goodell said to Acho. “What our players are doing is being mischaracterized. 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 or in 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 the thing that really gnawed at me.”

In the second part of the interview, released Monday night, Goodell repeated his support for players who protest during the anthem. “We have never disciplined a single player for anything with the national anthem and in violation. And I don’t intend to,” Goodell said. “And I will support them.”

In the first part of the interview, Goodell told Acho of being affected by visiting call centers and hearing victims report domestic violence, something he did after many said he bungled the NFL’s response in 2014 to a video that showed running back Ray Rice knocking his fiancee unconscious. What prompted his change of heart then occurred when he saw video of victims and their families and “I listened to them. I heard it. And I believed it,” he said.

“But when you go and sit in one of those bail hearings, or you go on a ride-along … you go talk to a parent who’s lost their child because of police brutality, it’s better than hearing. You feel it. You hear it. You know it, and you see it. When that happens, it’s really powerful. It helped me understand better.”

In an email obtained by ESPN, Goodell sent links the interview to all NFL employees, along with a note encouraging them to “send me any thoughts you may have.”