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Roger Goodell’s National Anthem Letter to NFL Teams—Annotated

A critical reading of the commissioner’s memorandum to the 32 owners on the league’s plans to resolve the anthem situation

Roger Goodell’s Tuesday memo to the NFL’s 32 teams, laying out the league’s stance on social justice protests during the national anthem and its plan to reach a resolution at next week’s league meeting, was the strongest message yet from the NFL offices on the issue dividing the football viewing public.

It comes after Jerry Jones’s promise to bench Cowboys players who protest during the playing of the anthem, and the league’s pointing out its previously obscure game-day policy on the anthem—which now provides for discipline in the form of fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for teams that have players not on the field for the anthem.

After playing a behind-the-scenes intermediary role early on, NFL HQ is mobilizing, through its messaging, to resolve a conflict that it acknowledges is alienating fans. Here’s that letter (in bold), with my thoughts (in italics) on its real message to teams, players and fans.


To: Chief Executives

Club Presidents

From: Commissioner Goodell

Date: October 10, 2017

Re: Fall Meeting/National Anthem

We live in a country that can feel very divided. Sports, and especially the NFL, brings people together and lets them set aside those divisions, at least for a few hours.

Yes, nothing bridges divides like the most lucrative sports league in North America, which offers its players the least contract guarantees of any league; and which primarily draws talent from impoverished communities via a feeder system that denies adult athletes anything more than a small fraction of its gargantuan profits. And nothing heals divisions like asking those players to set aside their political views and honor a tradition with jingoistic undertones that, in part, was paid for by the Department of Defense and served as marketing for the military.

The current dispute over the National Anthem is threatening to erode the unifying power of our game, and is now dividing us, and our players, from many fans across the country.

It’s starting to hit us in our pockets, folks.

I’m very proud of our players and owners who have done the hard work over the past year to listen, understand and attempt to address the underlying issues within their communities. At our September committee meetings, we heard directly from several players about why these issues are so important to them and how we can support their work. And last week, we met with the leadership of the NFLPA and more players to advance the dialogue.

These are their communities and their problems. And while we’re happy to throw money at community initiatives that work to address symptoms of poverty and inequality (provided we get our due recognition for the display of charity), let’s keep it off the TV broadcast, gents.

Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us. We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.

It’s about honoring the flag, plain and simple. Don’t you know, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they were protesting the flag and the anthem, not racial inequity at home. All this talk from people like Michael Bennett and Malcolm Jenkins about gaps in income and education and a racial disparity in the rate of killings at the hands of police—that’s all window dressing. These men dishonor the flag.

That said, we care deeply about our players’ concern for social issues, and we badly want to move past this money-sucking conflict and talk about real issues. Not that we would actually acknowledge what those issues are in this memo.

Also, this memo is not going say outright that we are going to compel players to stand for the anthem. But you get the idea.

Building on many discussions with clubs and players, we have worked to develop a plan that we will review with you at next week’s League meeting. This would include such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues, and that will help to promote positive change in our country.

You want to blog about Richard Sherman visiting a Boys and Girls Club in South Central? Done. You want the NFL media relations army to blitz reporters with stories about local food drives and whatnot? Well, we already do that, so, done! But players, please keep your thoughts and initiatives to yourselves on Sunday afternoons, because a significant percentage of people who spend their money on us and our advertisers do not see you as men with emotions and empathy and pride worthy of their attention—especially if it disrupts their escape into sports. To them, you are lucky to have risen to this station in life (through no hard work of your own) and ought to be grateful to the patriotic billionaires who stick localities with the bill for their new stadiums and see fit to pay you to play a game. Grown men willing to pay hard-earned cash to wear your name on their backs and watch you perform would be loath to consider a belief of yours that contradicts their own. And we don’t dare challenge them.

We want to ensure that any work at the League level is consistent with the work that each club is doing in its own community, and that we dedicate a platform that can enable these initiatives to succeed. Additionally, we will continue the unprecedented dialogue with our players.

Remember, this is unprecedented. A few years ago we brought in some talented women to teach us that hitting women is bad, and now we’re just getting up to speed on this whole social activism deal. To be honest, we didn’t realize how confident you, the players, have become in your voices in the age of social media. But we understand now, and we want you to be quiet at the precise moment when your voices can be heard the loudest. Please?

I expect and look forward to a full and open discussion of these issues when we meet next week in New York. Everyone involved in the game needs to come together on a path forward to continue to be a force for good within our communities, protect the game, and preserve our relationship with fans throughout the country. The NFL is at its best when we ourselves are unified. In that spirit, let’s resolve that next week we will meet this challenge in a unified and positive way.

Let’s unify! And by unify I mean go back to the status quo. Clubs that allow protests to continue will suffer the consequences.

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