NFL commissioner Roger Goodell Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Goodell, NFL fumble chance to lead yet again

Presented with a chance to live up to the image he thinks he sees when he looks into the mirror, that of commissioner of a league that is equal parts American sports monolith and cultural force for good, Roger Goodell failed miserably — again.

The commissioner's statement Saturday perfectly encapsulates where the NFL is on social issues: It was tone-deaf, vague, uninspiring and cowardly. As protesters around the country expressed their anger at the death in police custody of George Floyd, who was unarmed and handcuffed, Goodell and the NFL cowered when they had a chance to meet the moment.

Instead, there was no mention in the 150-word statement of how Floyd died, no mention that Breonna Taylor was shot by Louisville police officers after they mistakenly entered her home during a no-knock raid and no mention of Ahmaud Arbery being killed in broad daylight by armed white assailants. There was no mention of the fact that all three victims were black.

Goodell wrote about the NFL’s “commitment” and “ongoing efforts” and of an “urgent need for action.” Yet absent from the statement was anything about police brutality or racism. Instead, “tragic events” was trotted out as a toothless catch-all term.

What is the league committed to? In what areas is the league continuing its ongoing efforts? What issue necessitates an urgent need for action? Those questions are only necessary because the statement provided no answers.

The most ridiculous, infuriating sentence was this: “We recognize the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society.”

The last time Goodell’s NFL flexed those societal muscles was when it blackballed Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem — and then instituted rules to prevent other players from carrying on his protest. Kaepernick’s peaceful message against police brutality cost him his career because team owners wanted no part of signing him despite his obvious ability. They instead chose the path of cowardice and once again proved themselves subservient to the threats of their angriest, most reactionary fans.

How can a league that threw Kaepernick to the wolves say with a straight face that it will continue “the important work to address these systemic issues”? Goodell and the owners can’t even fix their own systemic failings, one of which is the league's major issue with minority representation among head coaches and general managers. They initially tried to fix it via a ham-fisted (and Goodell-supported) measure that would have provided draft incentives to teams that made minority hires.  

What’s more, how can the NFL be expected to take the lead in addressing systemic issues when it is too scared to say what they are? Is the league afraid to offend police departments? Like so many teams and some prominent athletes in other sports, the NFL is unwilling to explicitly articulate the reason why millions of people are so angry.

Maybe that has to do with the league’s relationship with the military and law enforcement, a longstanding marriage that was also lucrative, until reporting revealed its cynical nature. Maybe the owners Goodell works for don’t think it’s actually a problem; their handling of Kaepernick certainly suggests that is the case. Or maybe Goodell and his bosses are every bit as craven and detached from reality as they appear, concerned only with the bottom line and willing to let empty platitudes straight out of the public relations 101 playbook do their talking for them.

That last explanation seems most likely to me. Goodell can position the league -- which has only two owners of color -- as a beacon for good all he wants. It won’t change the truth: The NFL exists to print money for its owners, and nothing — not player safety, not social consciousness, not rampant hypocrisy — will stand in the way of that goal.

The NFL is not some high-minded force for unwavering good in communities all around the country. It is a for-profit enterprise that turned a cold shoulder to police brutality protests in its own stadiums and that shunned an electric, young talent because he dared speak his mind on an issue of immense importance. The league is run by a group of weak-willed, tone-deaf cowards, and as Saturday’s statement proved yet again, in Roger Goodell they’ve found the perfect spokesman.

Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.


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