Four years after the NFL distanced itself from Colin Kaepernick’s protest, and on the heels of an offseason that saw players speaking out about police brutality and racial inequality, the league and its broadcast partners did all they could to show that the NFL will embrace dialogue with its players and fans about race and racism while also offering newfound contrition.
There was also an effort to couch this newfound image in strictly apolitical terms, though some players had other ideas.
Sunday began with montages aplenty during the pregame shows. San Francisco 49ers defensive back Richard Sherman voiced an essay that played over images of Black Lives Matter protests on ESPN. On Fox, another essay made the connection between the knee Kaepernick took, reigniting a decades-old debate about athletes as activists, to the knee of the Minneapolis police officer that killed George Floyd.
As Sunday’s games kicked off, broadcasters across every network described players staying in the locker room during the national anthem — supported, this time, by the league — and cameras panned to find players kneeling or with arms linked during not just one national anthem but a second, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem.
The networks, ultimately, are messengers for the league’s values, which is why, in the decades since 9/11, the telecasts favored flyovers and field-sized American flags. There was, unsurprisingly, a distinct new flavor this past week, with similar themes emerging on every broadcast.
It began the night before the season kicked off, with NFL Media producing a prime-time special that aired on NBC. Titled “Inspire Change,” it included host Mike Tirico interviewing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association President DeMaurice Smith. The first question was for Goodell, about how he has changed in the four years since Kaepernick first took a knee.
“All of us went through a process of learning to try to understand what our players were protesting,” Goodell said. “Colin and Eric Reid and Kenny Stills and so many other players who were trying to bring attention to what’s going on in their communities and our communities, and we’re seeing that play out now on screens in front of us, and it’s been going on for decades if not longer.”
Goodell continued: “For us, it was just understanding what their focus was and then also, beyond, just the attention that wanted to be brought to it but how do we help and support them make the change in their communities?”
Reid and Kaepernick, who called the NFL’s social justice gestures “propaganda,” would almost certainly take exception to that explanation. But the sentiment was echoed on Fox’s Sunday pregame show by Howie Long.
“Four years ago, most folks across the country missed the message and maybe the meaning when Colin Kaepernick took a knee,” Long said. “I’m a guy who played 13 years in the NFL, in locker rooms that were predominantly Black, which gave me what I thought was a unique perspective that most White people don’t get. I’m embarrassed to say that the very first time Colin took a knee I wondered why during the national anthem, because for someone who looks like me this is the greatest country on earth. But for the last 400 years that hasn’t been the reality for Black Americans.”
If explaining changing attitudes was a common thread, so was the effort to tell viewers explicitly what the ongoing protests were about and not about — an attempt to survive the tightrope of supporting players while not alienating some fans. According to a recent Washington Post poll, 56 percent of Americans say athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality is appropriate. That’s up from a few years ago but still leaves a large share who disagree.
NBC’s Tony Dungy said: “This isn’t about the flag; it’s not about Black and White. It’s about making our country a better place to live.”
Fox’s Curt Menefee said: “The one thing that got misconstrued before, the kneeling, why are you protesting during the national anthem? First of all, the players aren’t protesting the national anthem. They’re demonstrating during the national anthem. What they’re protesting is what’s off the field — police brutality, social injustice.”
The easiest way to describe the aims of the movement, several commentators settled on, was the fairly anodyne “unity.”
On NBC’s Thursday night telecast, Al Michaels said, “It boils down to unity and equality.”
On Sunday morning on CBS’s pregame show, Boomer Esiason said, “That’s the key word: It is about unity.”
To which Phil Simms responded: “You know, Boomer, you said a great word: unified. I think that’s what the players want to be. They want to be unified.”
Of course, any pledge of unity was quickly undermined when fans in Kansas City booed the Houston Texans and the Chiefs as they lined up together for their pregame “moment of unity.” (To his credit, CBS host James Brown noted the booing Sunday.)
Goodell and network executives, wary of the partisan divisions that remain around athlete protest, also insisted their newfound focus on social justice was apolitical.
“We’re not here to make political statements,” Goodell told Tirico on Wednesday night.
ESPN executive Stephanie Druley said on a conference call last week, “We don’t see the social justice movement as being political.”
The consistency of the messaging aside, some players appeared comfortable pushing back. On Thursday, before the season even kicked off, the Miami Dolphins released a video that called such pronouncements into question. “This attempt to unify only creates more divide. So we’ll skip the song and dance. And as a team, we’ll stay inside,” players said, adding, “No more fluff and empty gestures.”
And Sunday, when CBS’s Nate Burleson conducted an interview with the Baltimore Ravens’ Calais Campbell, they discussed his team’s letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), urging the passing of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
A player talking about specific, and divisive, legislation, while lobbying a politician, is decidedly not apolitical. Which perhaps explains why, as persistent as the “unity” messaging was, there was also a distinct appeal to get on with the football. Nowhere was that more evident than when Cris Collinsworth, on NBC, welcomed viewers to the season’s opening game with a remark that was either out of touch or an apt summation of how some football fans felt.
“I’m going to announce this football game,” Collinsworth said. “But I feel like I have to start off by saying something: I stand behind these players 100 percent — 100 percent. What they are trying to do is create positive change in this country that, frankly, is long, long overdue. So let’s get that out of the way and go call a football game.”