How several key players — and one rogue employee — changed the NFL’s message

As we ponder protests rightly demanding social justice and sweeping reform — a cause that seems to be adding allies, many from the sports world, at an impressive rate — a quote attributed to Maya Angelou keeps popping up on social media and sticking in my brain: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

How do we reconcile people or organizations with a long history of being either silent or clearly on the other side of social justice issues suddenly using their platforms to advocate for change? Do we take them at their word, that they have had a sort of awakening? Are we completely dismissive, essentially saying, “too little, too late?” Or are we somewhere in the middle — cautious and wary of ulterior motives but also leaving room for optimism that words might be followed by actions?

If you are an NFL fan that thinks the league has been on the very wrong side of questions of race and protest — most notably and recently pertaining to Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality — you might be asking yourself these questions Monday, with the NFL’s public attempt at a near-180 still fresh from a stunning series of events last week.

In a video released Friday evening, following the powerful voices of many key NFL players, Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.

How did we get here? What does this mean? What comes next? Peter King has some excellent details in his most recent Football Morning In America column. Some key context:

*The chain of events started moving Wednesday with Drew Brees’ remarks about the flag and players’ swift response to him. But it really picked up steam later that day, King reports, when a member of the NFL’s social media team essentially went rogue.

Per King’s reporting: As with many NFL employees, NFL social media creative producer, Bryndon Minter, 27, was angry with the NFL’s word-salad response to the George Floyd murder and the ensuing outcry for a firmer message. Early in the week, with the Floyd killing beginning to dominate society, Minter told his bosses he didn’t want to do business as usual. He couldn’t in good conscience post “Five best Jalen Ramsey interceptions,” and he couldn’t sit by while his employer wasn’t out-front with an action plan for the Floyd story.

He reached out to the Saints’ Michael Thomas about creating a video and got a near-instant reaction. Barely 24 hours later, several prominent NFL players — including Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr from the Vikings — appeared on a video demanding some of the very things Goodell would say on his own video the next day.

And Brees continued his reversal, addressing President Trump with these words: “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 & prison reformWe are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history! If not now, then when? We as a white community need to listen and learn from the pain and suffering of our black communities.”

That was a lot to take in at a dizzying pace. This was the NFL, after all, whose owners voted to ban anthem protests just two years ago. This is a league and a commissioner who have skewed conservative and remained neutral (at best) on several key issues.

Do we believe the NFL that has shown us (repeatedly, not just the first time) who it is and dismiss all this as nothing but hollow words designed to try to placate players? Or do we allow room to believe the league is actually listening? King offers plenty of players and others connected to the league a chance to speak, and the answers on what comes next are mixed.

It’s one thing to change a narrative. It’s another to actually change.

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