Football and politics will be front and center this fall, and it’s impossible to miss similarities between two NFL story lines (Colin Kaepernick and Roger Goodell) and the Republican presidential nominee. This has nothing to do with politics, believe me
This is a column comparing Colin Kaepernick and Roger Goodell to Donald Trump. Before you stop reading, know that I am apolitical, do not endorse Trump and will not discuss politics here (or anywhere else). As someone born and raised in Washington, D.C., I learned quickly that politics are largely a game of spin, and I pride myself on being immune to spin.
Again, this isn’t about politics. It’s about the staying power of Trump and Kaepernick, and the seemingly intransigent personalities of Trump and Goodell.
Stay with me here.
Tapping Into Something
Many thought Kaepernick’s actions of protest during the national anthem would be a one-off, a singular event eliciting some temporary conversation—both productive and divisive—only to quickly and quietly fade away in the crush of the Twitter-paced news cycle. The opposite has happened, with players at all levels of football joining this protest. Further, the NFL’s succinct (and admirable) position of “encouraging but not requiring” players to stand during the anthem has immunized players wanting to follow Kaepernick’s lead from any discipline. As I said at the time, it was highly naïve to suggest Kaepernick’s actions would be a one-time event; this has staying power.
Many (including myself) also thought that Trump would never have staying power as a presidential candidate. Surely, we thought, he would simply be a temporary diversion before the “serious” candidates took over. Trump is now the last Republican candidate standing after voters kicked a lengthy list of experienced politicians off the island. Trump’s popularity continues to endure—we’re now over a year into his campaign—despite repeated inflammatory and divisive remarks. Donald Trump as a finalist for president of the United States reads like the penultimate episode of a reality series, but it is actually happening.
Although diametrically different messengers and messages, Kaepernick and Trump have used their voices to tap into something lurking beneath the surface, and it has resonated with that audience. What is that something? As I see it, it is a feeling of being ignored, of being passed by, of being lied to by politicians and those responsible for change. More directly, it is the feeling that no one is listening to them. The reach of their impact is astounding. Both Kaepernick and Trump—in ways that are polar opposites—speak to a growing audience with latent discontent with the status quo.
Once Trump became the Republican presidential nominee, party leaders hoped he would become more presidential, less inflammatory and divisive, and more respectful, scripted and dignified. Alas, Trump has been unwilling or unable (or both) to be that more “presidential” figure, reverting to his default setting of who he has always been.
In contrast, NFL “president” Roger Goodell seems to have the opposite problem with his image. He is perceived as “too presidential,” too scripted, too rehearsed, too robotic. I have often thought Goodell could benefit by showing a more endearing human side, which—though many would find this hard to believe—I have seen.
When I was with the Packers, Goodell showed a compassionate and caring side, often calling to check on couple of our troubled players, even arranging a quiet visit with one of them away from cameras. Similarly, in talking to former NFLPA union leaders Domonique Foxworth, Jeff Saturday and Scott Fujita, they saw a more personal and likable version of Goodell during the CBA negotiation process. It is there; we just do not see it.
NFL owners and sponsors may very well want a strong and stoic face of the league, an iron-jawed leader not prone to displays of emotion and humanity. Although a more human and vulnerable Goodell would go a long way toward helping his image, NFL owners, to whom he serves, may not agree. I am not sure we will ever see a Goodell that is less scripted, less rehearsed, less parsed, less vague, more revealing and more vulnerable. Indeed, over the years it appears that Goodell has become more, not less, unrevealing in his public comments.
Will Donald Trump ever act more “presidential”? Will Roger Goodell ever act less “presidential?” The answer to both questions is the same: don’t hold your breath.
Before venting, I must note the NFL has been on a positive trajectory with concussion protocols and treatment over the past few years. It is doing more than many other levels of football, as NFL players have less contact in practice than most colleges and high schools. And the new protocols agreed to by the NFL and the NFLPA, and the NFL’s new initiatives announced this week, are positive news.
The concussion protocol from the season’s opening game regarding Cam Newton still bugs me. Just when it seemed we had moved past the “play through” culture of players dictating to medical personnel, not vice versa, another situation like last year’s Case Keenum fiasco has happened.
I applaud the new protocols but have remained skeptical about whether they would be implemented 1) with a star player, and/or 2) in an important part of the game. And we seem to have our answer from opening night: no, to both parts. Even more disturbing was the NFL’s statement that while the officials were administering penalties, the team and independent medical personnel evaluated video of Newton and determined he could continue. Video…really? What medical professionals opt for video over actually examining the patient, who was a few feet away!
I hear those who say that if a game were stopped every time a player was woozy there would be stoppages all game long. First, if the stated highest priority is player safety, then that is part of that priority. Moreover, were that player on his hands and knees after a vicious hit another player not named Cam Newton, it is highly likely there would have been on-field intervention. Indeed, earlier in the game Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall stayed down on a knee after a play, and trainers were immediately beside him. Concussion protocols should not be influenced by the player’s star power or the time left in the game. We can call do better when it comes to protecting players from themselves.
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