By Nancy Armour |
It can be tough to figure out how the NFL really feels about the player protests and, more importantly, the issues of race and inequality that sparked them.
The owners say they’re committed to social justice efforts yet adopt a misguided code of conduct for the national anthem that inflames the issue only to then table it. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones huffs and puffs about decorum during the anthem and then refuses to take off his hat. The league stays largely quiet when Nike, one of its biggest corporate partners, makes Colin Kaepernick the face of its latest marketing campaign but continues to fight the quarterback’s collusion lawsuit.
But perhaps the NFL is behind the players more than fans, a few outspoken owners or President Trump know or care to admit. To get a glimpse of this, look to a New Orleans courtroom this week.
There, for the better part of an hour, Commissioner Roger Goodell sat next to the grandfather of a young man awaiting a hearing to see if his bail would be reduced and, if so, if he’d have the money to afford it.
Goodell asked about the grandson’s arrest, on robbery and armed robbery charges, the progress of the case and his family. When the grandfather returned from a brief conference with a lawyer, Goodell asked how it went. And when it was time for the commissioner to leave, Goodell extended his hand and wished the older man luck.
In all, Goodell spent almost nine hours here Tuesday with other league officials and Saints linebacker Demario Davis and tight end Benjamin Watson getting a crash course on the inequities of the cash-bond system, the broad powers of district attorneys and the dangers those can present, and the challenges associated with re-entry.
The Players Coalition, formed by Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin to help coordinate players’ social justice efforts, organized the day. It’s the latest “Listen and Learn” event the group is hosting around the country to educate players – league and team officials, too, if they wish to attend – on the issues plaguing either the criminal justice system, policing, or education and economic structures.
Goodell took notes and asked questions. More than once, he asked what the NFL could do.
“How do we make an impact?” Goodell asked at the end of the day. “I think we have a better understanding of the problems. What are the solutions?
“(It’s important) to bring awareness,” he added, “but more than bring awareness, bring impact.”
Sight of people in chains
It’s been two years since Kaepernick first took a knee to draw attention to the racism that underlies our criminal justice and economic systems. The protests spread quickly in a league whose players are predominantly African-American, but their message was overlooked by people who chose instead to paint them as disrespectful to the country, the flag, the military, apple pie and everything else.
To try and defuse the tensions, the NFL began meeting last season with members of the Players Coalition, eventually agreeing to contribute $90 million to social justice efforts.
Cynics said the NFL was trying to buy the players’ silence, and it’s true the protests have mostly ended. But the players were never protesting for the sake of protesting. They were protesting to drive change, and Goodell’s presence Tuesday, along with that of Saints owner Gayle Benson and Saints president Dennis Lauscha for part of the day, shows that the NFL is genuine in its desire to help fix the fault lines in our country.
“I expect to hear that from Ben and Demario,” said Norris Henderson, founder of Voice of the Experienced, a group dedicated to restoring voting rights of people who have been incarcerated. “But to hear the commissioner taking this in and trying to get educated and … understanding the roles these individuals are taking inside their different communities and the importance of it, for him to see all this stuff up close and personal and hear all the challenges people face daily is huge.”
If the NFL – if Goodell – wasn’t sincere, the commissioner would have shown up once, made his presence known with a media blitz and then disappeared. But he has been an active, if under-the-radar, partner. This is the second “Listen and Learn” he’s attended, having also been at the inaugural session last year in Philadelphia.
The Players Coalition has since hosted “Listen and Learns” in Baltimore, Boston, Detroit and New York, and was doing one in Atlanta on Wednesday.
Goodell did not travel with an entourage Tuesday or hold a news conference after, and only one person appeared to recognize him during the day. He showed up ready to work, giving each of the speakers his full attention. He often jotted notes as they spoke. Not once did he pull out his phone to check email or leave the room to take a call.
After the bail hearings, community organizers asked attendees to break into small groups and discuss what they’d seen and how it made them feel. Watson was visibly upset at the use of chains on people who haven’t yet been convicted, saying the sight and sound reminded him of slavery.
As Watson wondered about the psychological impact that kind of dehumanization has, and its trickle-down effect, Goodell nodded and said he’d had similar thoughts.
“You’re going to have that going through your head,” he said.
“Relay the information to the owners”
Goodell’s participation is not meant to overshadow or hijack the work the players have done. Already, lobbying efforts by members of the Players Coalition have resulted in changes to the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Davis and Watson wrote a letter in May to Louisiana legislators endorsing a bill that restored voting rights to the previously incarcerated, helping secure its passage.
But Goodell’s involvement cannot be overlooked, Davis said.
“Not everybody understands why we’re out on the front lines of this,” Davis said, addressing Goodell after the group had lunch at Café Reconcile, which provides job training for at-risk youth.
“Having you here in this environment with us – nobody is better than you to go and relay the information to the owners about why we can’t just pull away from this. We can’t.”
What results from Goodell’s presence Tuesday remains to be seen. He asked specific questions about who has the power to change Louisiana’s practice of using bail money to fund its court system, as well as an upcoming ballot initiative to require unanimous jury verdicts for felony convictions. (Louisiana and Oregon are the only two states where a person can be convicted without a unanimous verdict.)
He seemed to be particularly interested in the far-reaching impact cash bail has – if someone can’t pay their bail, they will likely lose their job, maybe their kids, despite not even being adjudicated yet – and the lack of resources for women who have been incarcerated. He shook his head and winced while hearing four men tell their stories of being wrongly convicted and serving two decades or more before being released.
But the potential power of the NFL’s partnership with the players was clear by the end of the afternoon. The company that runs the Superdome hires graduates of a training program for federal inmates, Lauscha said, an initiative that began after he read Watson’s 2015 book, Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race. Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us. What could they do, Lauscha asked, to help communicate that message to the rest of New Orleans’ business community?
And after hearing Syrita Steib-Martin say that her organization, which provides resources to women who’ve been incarcerated, needed more space, Benson offered Operation Restoration an office in Benson Tower. There are many state agencies in the building, Lauscha noted, and he hoped Operation Restoration’s new proximity to them would open additional doors.
“This message we were able to translate will go to places that we would never have the opportunity to be in front of,” said Henderson, the founder of Voice of the Experienced.
The messages on this day were important and productive. There were no incendiary memes or bumper stickers, nor any divisive tweets. Instead there was the NFL commissioner and NFL players, working together to try and find solutions.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.