Commentary: NFL apology to likely result in more kneeling during anthem – but has overall perspective changed?


This has been quite a week. A week that included apologies from Commissioner Roger Goodell and Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

If you missed it, Brees was admonished by players all over the league for his comments about kneeling during the national anthem being disrespectful to the American Flag. After the backlash, Brees apologized, but was then criticized by President Trump, who tweeted “There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag – NO KNEELING!”

To which Brees responded, quote: “I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It never has been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities… We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial and prison reform.”

A couple things happened here:

1. Brees was willing to listen, show empathy, and change his tune.

2. Players kneeling during the anthem is likely to happen again this season, potentially with many more players joining in.

Overall, this was a seismic shift in the way an employer like the NFL is viewing these silent protests – and it’s going to have an effect on a certain number of fans, owners, and sponsors as the league moves forward. Frankly, if the last few years are any indication, threats of boycotts or dropping sponsorships has had little effect on the popularity of the league and the overall bottom line.

I’m not here to try and convince people who are dug in on the issue – the ones who still refuse to accept players kneeling for the anthem – other than to say that those people will likely be vulnerable to the same kinds of attacks Drew Brees received this week.

But to those on the fence – those influenced by the purpose of the protests around our country the last couple weeks – I think it’s worth revisiting and/or considering a few points. First, that the act of kneeling itself was suggested as a compromise to Colin Kaepernick by a former Green Beret – a former Seahawks long-snapper Nate Boyer - who likened kneeling to the respect one pays to a fallen soldier – to still show respect for those who died for what the American Flag and anthem stand for.

Yes – it was a compromise – finding middle ground – something we don’t find very often in today’s fractured world. Boyer continued to stand for the anthem but supported Kaepernick taking a knee. It’s a reminder that as a fan, no one is being asked to take a knee – but simply to understand the intention.

Which brings us to the second point that so many players repeated this week – that it’s not about the flag. That the intent has always been to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice, the same causes that have been promoted in the wake of George Floyd.

And finally, when players kneel for the anthem, I’m not seeing violence. I’m not seeing the destruction of property. I’m not seeing a debate between police and protesters over who started what. I’m not seeing the sins of a few bad apples being characterized as the whole by those who oppose them. It is a silent, peaceful protest.

I raise these points tonight because this is likely what we’ll see this season: An act of protest now condoned by the league for which they play.

And at the very least, it will force some to decide whether they’re willing to compromise long-held beliefs to listen – to understand – to empathize with those who perform these peaceful acts of protest.

And if they are, it might be considered at least a small step forward in terms of progress and hope.