NFL commissioner Roger Goodell  Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Why Roger Goodell should kneel with players

NASCAR's swift response to what originally appeared to be a hate crime against one of its drivers should serve as an example for the NFL hierarchy.

An FBI investigation determined the noose found in Bubba Wallace’s garage at Talladega Superspeedway was neither a hoax nor a hate crime and that it had been there since 2019, long before it was assigned to Wallace, the only African-American driver on the circuit.

In many ways, though, NASCAR’s overwhelming show of support for Wallace, along with president Steve Phelps' condemnation of racism, was the real story. Nearly every person involved with the race — fellow drivers, crew members and more — pushed Wallace’s car to the front of the pack, and after its conclusion, an emotional Wallace addressed the crowd. 

For an organization that banned the Confederate flag at its events on only June 10, it proved a quick study.

And if Phelps can stand up against the ugliness of racism, why can’t Roger Goodell take a similarly dramatic stance? If the commissioner wants to really show NFL players he’s serious about listening to them and being an ally on issues of social justice and systemic racism, here’s an idea: Kneel with them in solidarity.

It would not go over well. Many would view it as grandstanding and too little, too late from a commissioner who blew an opportunity to support the players during the 2016 national anthem controversy. People on both sides of the issue might even consider it cringeworthy.

But combined with real,  tangible changes -- an even larger committment to social justice initiatives, for example  -- the symbolism could be deeply impactful for the league's African-American players, who comprise roughly 70 percent of the NFL. This would go well beyond the co-opting of the Black Lives Matter movement by companies who have offered statements of support with little to no substance behind them. 

Arthur Moats, who is black, played linebacker for the Bills and Steelers from 2010-17. He was embittered by the commissioner's lack of support for the players four years ago. His initial reaction to my suggestion that Goodell kneel in solidarity with his players was that it would be "phony" and "propaganda."

But for the players still in the league?

“From the perspective of players who didn’t have to endure that situation, I would say that Goodell taking a knee would be a great sign of solidarity and show his public support," Moats told me. "Public support is going to be huge, especially when we all know the players who take a knee are still going to receive backlash.”

Some NASCAR fans were furious because of the flag ban; there was a plane flying over the track at Talladega with the Confederate flag trailing behind it, along with the words “Defund NASCAR.” But Goodell wouldn't just take criticism from football fans if he took a knee. He'll likely also hear it privately from the owners and very publicly from President Trump. 

If Goodell goes far enough with a show of support — if his words are backed by action — he might even put his job in peril. Fay Vincent was the last commissioner in any of the four major sports who tried to act in the best interest of the sport, tacitly aligning with players at times to do so. Baseball’s owners eventually forced him out.

The potential negative consequences are all the more reason to do it. Real actions have real stakes. Saying that the league was wrong to ignore players is one thing; engaging in the very activity that cost Colin Kaepernick a job in the NFL would be something else altogether. Goodell might anger his bosses, but there is almost no chance he could actually make a significant dent in the sport’s popularity by clearly aligning himself with the players.

The country’s appetite for the NFL is as insatiable as ever, and for all the Twitter or Facebook loudmouths insisting that they’ll never watch the league again because of the protests, there are thousands who would happily continue to do so. That secure status atop the American sports hierarchy means that Goodell isn’t going to hurt the NFL’s bottom line by taking a genuine stand.

What’s more, he might bring in some new fans and change his legacy from one of the most disliked figures in the sport to someone who is not just paying lip service to societal issues. He'd send a clear message that he fully supports players and that the league is truly changing for the better in addressing racism and police brutality. Better late than never.

In the past several weeks, many NFL players have spoken out against these issues. Some have toed a careful line, while others have been more blunt. Most of what has been said has made its way through the news cycle, but the whole thing feels a bit decentralized. More players talking is a good thing, but there lacks some sort of epic moment to crystallize a movement that has grown louder and gained more support than it did three years ago.

The NFL needs that galvanizing moment, something that will stick with fans and underscore how serious the league is about empowering its players to speak up and fixing its own internal diversity issues. 

Goodell kneeling during the national anthem — perhaps next to Kaepernick, who could well be back on a roster this season — would bring an ugly, divisive saga to a close and serve as the starting point for a new path forward. 

If NASCAR can do it, Roger, so can you.

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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