Team and League Statements on Social Justice Mostly Ring Hollow

Famous people and corporate brands have been putting out generic statements for a long time. But this week people have been parsing the actual words. Many within the NFL world haven't actually said much.
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Before this past week, before the cocoons many of us were able to hide inside were stripped away by the ultimate reality of a country reckoning with its ugly past (and, for too many, its ugly present), “The Statement” was the perfect vehicle for brands, entities, famous humans or sports leagues to subvert controversy and maintain their comfortable ride.

There are people who go to school just to learn how The Statement works; how to prepare it delicately like a Michelin-star chef laying down a razor-thin slice of artichoke. The Statement, like the needlessly complicated legalese some documents are written in (so you must hire a lawyer) or the dense financial jargon that coils around our life savings (so you must hire a financial adviser) is meant only to neutralize the mind. There is no heart. No meaning. The only real goal is for the issuer of The Statement to be able to say they said something. It is not to be memorable. Not to inspire. In real world terms, it is a box to check that will, by design, vanish into the void without anyone examining its contents.

I think, this past week, something changed. Whether The Statement came from the NFL commissioner himself, a majority of the 32 clubs or a smattering of high-profile players, those reading the words actually parsed the language. That action, the careful consideration of the message, magnifies the importance of the words beyond a holiday fruit cake that one just passes along to say they brought an item to the dinner party.

Roger Goodell passed this along on Saturday (before the league took a second swing on Thursday night following a week of impassioned outreach from players of color around the league).

"The NFL family is greatly saddened by the tragic events across our country. The protesters' reactions to these incidents reflect the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel.

"Our deepest condolences go out to the family of Mr. George Floyd and to those who have lost loved ones, including the families of Ms. Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Mr. Ahmaud Arbery, the cousin of Tracy Walker of the Detroit Lions.

"As current events dramatically underscore, there remains much more to do as a country and as a league. These tragedies inform the NFL's commitment and our ongoing efforts. There remains an urgent need for action. We recognize the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society. We embrace that responsibility and are committed to continuing the important work to address these systemic issues together with our players, clubs and partners."

Upon further examination, what does it really say? We recognize that people are sad. We recognize that there are people who are protesting who seem upset. Someone should do something about it. We at the NFL realize we have a large platform and could probably do something about it.

There is no timeline. There are no specifics. There is no promise. The phrase “we are committed to continuing the important work to address these systemic issues” suggests that a league that stood by as its 32 member clubs pretended that Colin Kaepernick did not exist while employing a smattering of less-qualified players feels like it’s doing a fine enough job already. Apply this same tactical read to the statements put out by most NFL teams—save for the brave, initial words of Dolphins head coach Brian Flores—and you’ll mostly unearth the same buffet of platitudes that merely point out the fact that a problem exists and that they are sorry it does.

People are paying attention now. Whether it’s the sad irony of Washington’s football team participating in Blackout Tuesday—the movement itself an ultimately hollow gesture—or the utter meaninglessness of a “let’s all come together” tweet, hollow gestures are being seen as hollow.

This week, people have been calling out the B.S. Whether it’s members of the Florida State football team outing their coach for exaggerating the depth of his “one-on-one” conversations he had with each and every player. Or members of the Saints (and the general public in New Orleans) calling out Drew Brees for his ridiculous comments about kneeling during the national anthem. Make no mistake, Brees knew exactly what he was saying at the time. Attaching the way he stands for the national anthem to the military and respect, while simultaneously synonymizing those who kneel as antimilitary and disrespectful, was a version of The Statement he’s been gliding on for four years now. There was no difference between the actions of Brees and so many of the poll-sniffing politicians he appears to adore.

But, as Brees’s teammate Cam Jordan told NFL.com: “You can’t play both sides on this one. We’re fighting to end social injustice, and you’re either with us or you aren’t.”

He’s right. If the NFL wants its players back, if the coaches want their teams back, if the quarterbacks want their huddles back, they better ditch the empty statements. They better take time and really examine what is in their hearts. Otherwise, people are just going to assume they’re part of the problem.

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