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  • After the president's inflammatory comments, the former NFL commissioner defends players’ character and their right to free expression
By Jonathan Jones
September 24, 2017

CHARLOTTE — Before Roger Goodell ran the NFL, Paul Tagliabue served as the league commissioner from 1989 to 2006. He’s in Charlotte on Sunday meeting with his friend and Panthers owner/founder Jerry Richardson. Tagliabue met with assembled media two hours before kickoff. Here’s what he said:

“Not speaking for the league, I don’t represent the league, but from my perspective I think I know a little bit about NFL players. From my perspective, they’re engaged in many, many positive things all across America, all the time, week in and week out. Some of it is protest and demonstrations, speech. Some of it is supporting the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, visiting over there. Some of it is working in communities with police, EMS, firefighters and celebrating that, as the Cleveland Browns players did a couple weeks ago. I go to games in Baltimore where my grandkids live, and I know more about the players there who are in the community working with the homeless and domestic violence [victims]. For me to single out any particular group of players and call them SOBs, to me that’s insulting and disgraceful. I think the players deserve the credit, they should get credit for what they do. And when it comes to speech, they’re entitled to speak, we’re entitled to listen, we’re entitled to disagree or agree, for that matter. But we’re not entitled to shut anybody’s speech down. Sometimes you don’t like what you hear, well that’s true of life in lots of contexts, but you can’t shut people down and you can’t be disgraceful when you’re doing it.

“I’m not going to speculate as to what I’d say if I were commissioner. I just said what I think as a citizen and someone who’s concerned about players, concerned about what’s going on in America and concerned about how we treat each other. I think the message that came from the Cleveland Browns players not only being with police officers—and they’re not the only ones—being with firefights, being with EMS people, doing a video that talks about unity. I go back to the players I knew really well like Aeneas Williams in the Hall of Fame. He’s involved in Ferguson, Missouri. What’s he doing? He’s trying to bring people together and create conversations across racial lines and across community lines. All that’s going on, and we need to pay attention to the whole picture and not just a tiny slice of the picture. I can’t speak for Roger or any owner.”

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