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MMQB: What Led to Roger Goodell's Video; Nate Boyer Revisits Colin Kaepernick Advice; Broncos March

Multiple staff members at the NFL played a part in Roger Goodell's video on Friday. Plus, Nate Boyer checks in to discuss his advice for Colin Kaepernick three years ago and the way that message is often forgotten. And how the Broncos got such a large contingent together to march this weekend.

This week was a historic one for our country. It was also a historic one in the little corner of it that the National Football League occupies.

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 that Black Lives Matter.

I personally protest with you and want to be a part of the much-needed change in this country. Without black players, there would be no National Football League.

Those were the words that a group of 19 black players asked NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to recite last Thursday night. Those are the words that Goodell recited into a camera from his basement in suburban New York on Friday.

Goodell doing so doesn’t erase how messy the NFL’s handling was of player protests during the national anthem in 2016 and ’17. But make no mistake—this was a massive step for a league that’s always tried to stay out of these matters, with a laser focus on appealing to the largest audience it possibly can.

And that’s the thing about what happened this week. A brilliant effort by those 19 players, and a few of Goodell’s own employees, wouldn’t allow for the league to straddle the fence anymore, like it’s tried and failed to do over the last four years.

In fact, that was the brilliance in what Saints receiver Michael Thomas and the 18 stars he recruited did. It forced Goodell, and by proxy the league in which all these players play, to pick a side and be done with it.

Goodell did. And late Sunday night, the President responded via Twitter.

At the start of 2018, the NFL and NFLPA quietly agreed to leave the old anthem policy alone and on the books, months after owners passed a new policy that only created a minefield for each team. They did so based on data that showed them that, as one source told me at the time, “the Trump tweets are Trump tweets,” and that those weren’t affecting the conversation. What was affecting it was owners reacting to Trump tweets.

In essence, the edict was simple: Work with the players, don’t change the anthem policy, ignore the Trump tweets. Now, that policy gets put to the test.

And after a tumultuous week, so will Goodell’s resolve to stand behind the players.

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* * *

We’ll have football in this week’s MMQB, you’re just going to have to wait a little bit for it, given all that’s happened in our country since we were here with you last week. Inside the column, you’ll find …

• Green Beret Nate Boyer’s thoughts, four years after he advised Colin Kaepernick.

• How the Broncos’ march in Denver came together.

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• An account of where we are in the NFL’s plan to return.

• Which coaches were actually back in the office Friday, and who will be Monday.

• Why Larry Fitzgerald’s New York Times column spoke to me personally.

But we’re starting with all the tumult of the end of last week.

* * *

So, the truth is that by the time the players’ video posted on Thursday night, Goodell was trying to head in their direction anyway. The commissioner’s statement the previous Saturday (May 30) wasn’t well-received, and skepticism was high over how the league would handle all the mounting tension in our country, given all the water that’s flowed under this particular bridge the last few years.

But Goodell has been chipping away at how to proceed, really, for two weeks. Two Tuesdays ago, the day after George Floyd was killed, he did a call with the Players Coalition. That Thursday, the owners met virtually and Anna Isaacson, the league’s SVP of social responsibility, had an update on what the players had been doing. And last Monday, he spent time talking to players, team execs and owners, trying to put together another message for later in the week.

At 6:32 p.m. ET, from the NFL’s official Twitter account, came this: This is a time of self-reflection for all—the NFL is no exception. We stand with the black community because Black Lives Matter. In the thread to follow, the league committed to donating $20 million to causes addressing systemic racism, adding to the $44 million it’s already given.

One-hundred-and-forty-eight minutes later, at 9:00 p.m. ET sharp, the players’ video came, first from the account of Giants running back Saquon Barkley.

Goodell knew he had to respond. At 10:00 a.m. Friday, he convened a meeting of the Executive Operating Committee, made in part of the NFL’s EVPs, to discuss his response. At 11:00, the call ended and he asked a few of the execs to stay on to keep working. At 1:00 p.m., he spoke at an all-hands town hall, telling stories of being a kid in D.C. in 1968 after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. And then, he taped the response.

Its significance was twofold. One, it showed a public willingness of Goodell to follow the players’ lead on this. Two, and more significantly, it was the first admission from the NFL that it mishandled the players’ protests of three and four years ago. And while it wasn’t what everyone was looking for—it didn’t mention Kaepernick, though the players’ video didn’t either—it was a very big step forward.

And it may have been felt most by the young people who were so adamant and passionate in pushing the issue with the league. The players represented one faction of where that push was coming from. Interestingly enough, Goodell’s own staffers were another.

* * *

By now, you may have heard the story of Bryndon Minter, the 27-year-old social media creative producer at NFL Media who quite literally put his job on the line to spearhead the effort that wound up featuring 19 high-profile players directly calling out his employer.

I talked to him on Saturday afternoon. By then, the dust had settled on his effort, which started with a Wednesday night direct message to Saints star Michael Thomas, led to the video directed at the league, and finished up with Goodell’s unprecedented statement in response. And when it was all over, and Minter had a chance to take stock, there was a lot to sort through.

But mostly, he felt pride that his black colleagues—those so frustrated by the NFL’s initial response to the protests—felt like their voices had been heard.

“The most rewarding thing is being able to recognize my black colleagues that time and time again were passionately outspoken in telling stories and sharing their voices,” Minter said. “That’s what resonated with the other creators, the power in the message. And it’s not just one person wanting to do something, and that’s why I feel like it’s super rewarding. It isn’t about me, it’s the collective sentiment, voices that have wanted to be heard.

“They just needed the perfect situation, with someone OK with moving on from the league, from their job. I was OK with being reckless to make sure my colleagues’ and our players’ voices were appropriately heard.”

All that said, Minter couldn’t have imagined this would all come together like it did. And it didn’t start with the players, but those colleagues he referenced, who were working alongside him and were fed up with how the NFL was handling matters like these.

There wasn’t some eureka moment for Minter on the idea, either. It started with dissatisfaction with the widely-panned statement of May 30. It continued with Minter doing a lot of listening, and taking in a lot, in particular, from a Zoom call with about 40 members of the league’s social media and influencer team during the week. And it came with input from guys like NFL influencer/talent marketing manager Jarick Walker and senior director of influencer marketing and brand partnerships Maurice Jennings.

“My black colleagues are the ones who called it out immediately—This is an empty statement,” Minter said. “Those voices of my black colleagues, those played a large part in inspiring the video. The fact that my co-workers had strong, passionate voices, and want to work at the NFL, like I do, and hold the same morals I do, was what was behind it.”

So here, then, is how it came together.

Wednesday night: Minter sends a message request to Thomas on Instagram, which, because Thomas doesn’t follow him, requires Thomas not just to see it, but accept the message first. As part of the league’s social team, Minter has actually worked for Thomas in the past (creating social content as ordered by the front-facing social team), which is why, even though Minter doesn’t know Thomas personally, he chose to reach out to him first. Minter’s plan was to reach out to a number of players to find someone interested. But before he could he do it, within 15 minutes of the initial DM, Thomas responded. He was in.

Thursday morning: Thomas’s idea, to get 10 of the highest-profile players in on it, winds up mushrooming. He reached out to a bunch guys and got a stronger response than he expected. By the time Minter woke up on the West Coast, video files from Cowboys RB Zeke Elliott, and Vikings LBs Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr were in his phone. Thomas asked, Can we add Saquon? And then, an iCloud link came from Browns WR Odell Beckham Jr. After that, at about 10 a.m., Minter jumped on a call with Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes’s marketing manager Jacquelyn Dahl (Minter had worked with Mahomes’s team in the past, and had relationships there). Meanwhile, Thomas worked on the script, going back and forth with Minter on it, with NFL social media editor Nick Toney helping out, too. Minter also gave his supervisor a heads up that it was coming, just so he wouldn’t be blindsided, and got his support.

Thursday afternoon: As all of this was going on, Thomas was also navigating the situation involving his quarterback Drew Brees—a video of Brees telling Yahoo! Finance that he’d never agree with protests “disrespecting the flag” dropped on Wednesday. And he resolved in the process, tweeting just after 1 p.m. ET: “One of my brothers made a public statement yesterday that I disagreed with. He apologized & I accept it because that’s what we are taught to do as Christians. Now back to the movement! #GeorgeFloyd.” Meanwhile, Minter was editing video as it came in, and worked right through the day as more players wanted in, having to continue to add new voices to the piece.

Thursday night: The video goes live, with Barkley’s account being the first (due to some wires getting crossed) to post it. I wondered if, at that point, Minter got nervous. Instead, he said, he was at peace. When I asked what was running through his head when he first saw it online, he responded, “Relief. It’s done. As a creative project, up until the very last second, you’re always working to make it better, with color and audio refinement, all of that. And we were. But none of that really mattered, it could’ve looked a lot sh------, and that would’ve been OK. The message was what was important. So it was just a feeling of relief, after a 12-hour day of straight editing, no breaks, it was done.”

Friday: Minter wound up hearing from a number of league executives, who were thankful for the effort, and he was also apprised of the fact that Goodell would be responding. He knew Thomas’s idea was to create a revised statement and see if the commissioner would actually read it. But deep down, he didn’t expect Goodell’s response to be … that. “I definitely did not,” Minter said. “It’s a testament to the players and the voices that spoke up time after time, my colleagues, black and otherwise, that spoke up, and kept letting NFL executives know how they felt.” In the end, they were all heard.

When it was over, Minter lauded the effort of Thomas, first and foremost. “He’s an All-Pro receiver, so this isn’t what he does, but to manage 100 videos and send them, all while the Brees thing is going on, he was the executive producer. He really had an All-Pro performance on this.” And then he turned the spotlight to colleagues like Walker and Jennings.

So that’s where we’ll turn the spotlight now.

***

Over the weekend, Jarick Walker’s frustration was palpable. The NFL influencer/talent marketing manager was ticked with the silence two Fridays ago, to the point where he reached out via email to the league’s chief marketing officer, the highest-ranking guy he’s gotten to know in his short time at the league, to get his point across. And it only got worse when that silence was broken the day after with the aforementioned statement.

“I was disappointed,” said Walker, 31. “I’ve been with the NFL for seven months, and my expectations were high. I worked for Nike, and Nike makes bold statements. And I expected a lot from a league that I truly believe is America’s game. So yeah, I was disappointed.”

On Monday, he called the CMO. He expressed his frustration. He vented. He shared his expectation that the league would be better and discussed how that could happen. He was angry enough that he couldn’t focus on his work. But there was that Zoom call coming with the social media and influencer team that Minter referenced as an inspiration. On Tuesday, did it ever come.

“I definitely don’t think it went in the direction leadership thought it would,” Walker said. “It started off, we got opening remarks that addressed the situation, on the problems in America that needed to be solved, and then they opened it up for people to share thoughts on the matter. We have these town halls all the time, and when it gets opened up, you usually don’t get questions. But there was this fire inside me boiling, so as soon as they opened it up, I shared the sentiment of feeling let down, by leadership, by our statement, and shared that the statement wasn’t strong enough.

“I also shared a solution—to apologize for stopping something that was protesting this very thing [police brutality]. I gotta say, I’m new, and I’m still learning the team, but to hear every single person say the same thing, that they believed that we needed to do more, it was special.”

Maurice Jennings, the senior director of influencer marketing and brand partnerships, was on that call too. Unlike Walker and Minter, who work out of L.A., he’s at 345 Park in New York, sharing an office with Goodell and all those EVPs. He’s also a little older, at 36, and was there for everything in 2016 and ’17.

And with the younger voices taking the lead, he could hear a distinct difference in tone.

“Our leader opened it up, and understood our frustration and he wanted to talk it out,” Jennings said. “It wasn’t like any meeting I’ve been in, and I was around for Colin [Kaepernick]. This was different. People were speaking up, saying we needed to apologize to the guys that protested and that we needed to apologize to Colin.”

Minter took inspiration and went in his own direction with it. The rest of the team worked to take action.

Guys like Jennings and Walker “felt supported, we felt heard,” on that call. Walker had already been doing some rough work on a letter, after the back-and-forth with the CMO, and came up with the idea for he and about 20 or so of his colleagues to craft a letter to send to the CMO and one of the league’s senior vice presidents. The letter, Walker said, had a nearly identical sentiment as the players’ video.

“We stressed just that we were disappointed in the lack of leadership, not knowing where the company stands, and we asked, ‘Who would George Floyd have needed for there to be quicker action on the matter? One of us?’” Walker said. “It was just what we believed was the right thing.”

That day, they all got on a call that involved the entire marketing department—some 120 people were on it—and the CMO said that he was listening, particularly to the black voices at the forefront. “It went really long,” Jennings said. “It was powerful and emotional and it needed to be done.”

Wednesday night, the NFL released its second statement, which Jennings and Walker viewed as a step in the right direction. And Thursday, Walker was on another Zoom call, when Minter revealed the player video as it went up on social media—the other guys on the call had no idea, at first, that he was even behind it.

“Bryndon’s a wild man,” Walker said, laughing. “Those words were so similar to what we were all thinking here. … That man is a legend. I have so much respect for him, he’s a leader for doing something like this, fighting for what he believes in. It’s a young team we have here, and I’m so honored, so blessed to work with people like that.”

* * *

So what’s next? Walker says he hopes to use this as a jumping off point to advocate for a more diverse office, so more voices like his, that often mirror what the league’s players think, are heard. Jennings sees it more as a turning point, in that there were a lot of younger people working at the league office who were waiting for their voices to be heard. And there’s no question that, for Goodell, this was a big moment too.

For all of them, it was, at the very least, a step forward. The key now, they agree, is that those steps keep coming.

* * *

CHECKING BACK IN WITH NATE BOYER

Nate Boyer is a Green Beret who served six years, with multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he was one of the first people I thought of after Brees said what he did on Wednesday. Brees since has done a pretty serious about-face, apologizing to teammates on a Thursday Zoom call, then firing off a social media missive to the President, after Donald Trump tried to use his words as political capital.

But really, the big thing I couldn’t get my mind past was how many people forgot how Kaepernick came to kneel in the first place: advice from the kind of soldier that many people felt the action offended. So I called Boyer and asked him to take me through how it happened one more time, mostly so everyone could hear it again.

As you’ll remember, Kaepernick initially protested by sitting on the bench during the anthem. After NFL Network’s Steve Wyche first reported on it, Kaepernick was set to play a preseason game in San Diego, a city with an enormous military population.

“I was like, ‘What does this guy know about oppression? I’ve been to Darfur, and 400,000 people died in a genocide. And I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve seen real oppression. This place, we abolished slavery 150 years ago, we already had a civil rights movement, what is this even about?’” Boyer said. “I had those same feelings, frustrations. But then also knowing how frustrating it is to be in a divided time, I also knew, first of all, me just giving my opinion on why he’s right, why he’s wrong, why he’s uneducated, that’s not gonna help anything. So instead, I wrote this open letter.”

The Army Times published Boyer’s letter. Kaepernick responded by reaching out, and they set up a time to meet in San Diego.

“We talked about all this stuff, and it was through our conversations that he asked me, ‘Do you think there’s another way I could protest that won’t offend?’” Boyer recalled. “And I said, ‘No, there’s nothing you can do that’s not going to offend some people, but if you’re looking to do something different, I think being alongside your teammates is the most important thing. So the only other option I see if you’re committed to not standing up during the anthem, would be to take a knee alongside teammates. You just need to make it very clear you’re not protesting the flag, you’re not protesting the military, you’re not protesting the anthem, you’re protesting during the anthem.’

“And he has done that. He’s continued to say, ‘Why is there police brutality, racial inequality and social injustice?’ That’s really where that happened. He said he thought it was more powerful actually to take a knee. He said, ‘I think that’s a great idea, I’ll do that.’ And I told him that if he was willing to do that, I’d be willing to stand next to him and show that I support what he’s doing, support what he’s saying, support the mission.

“I didn’t wanna take a knee, because I feel the same way Drew Brees feels when the anthem plays, I want to stand with pride and all that. But I’m also willing to listen and willing to stand by people’s right, if they feel differently, to do something peacefully and continue to speak out on issues. I want our country to be better. I don’t want to see what happened with George Floyd. I don’t wanna see that happen. There are things we do need to improve.”

Four years later, Boyer’s Twitter avatar remains the picture of him standing by a kneeling Kaepernick at the old Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. He’s done a lot of research since. He’s continued to work with players, through the MVP program he and Jay Glazer lead, and he feels as good about the idea he gave Kaepernick today as he did in 2016.

And he had plenty else to say the other day. So here’s more from Boyer.

On George Floyd, Boyer didn’t mince words.

“First thing I noticed, beyond it being disgusting, was the irony of him taking a knee to end someone’s life,” he said. “It was just very inhumane, that’s what it looked like, man, it just looked inhumane. I wasn’t a cop, but I know what that feels like, to serve alongside people that disrespect the uniform, because I had those people I served with in the military. And everybody says, ‘You’re all heroes.’ No, we’re not. I don’t even see myself as one anyway.

“But beyond that, there’s plenty of people that I served with that got honorable discharges, and I think about some of the people I knew, they just weren’t great people, they weren’t the right person for the job, and they were protected in some ways. That’s not OK. And I stood by idly, too. That’s not OK. I didn’t see it that much. For sure, I never saw anything like that. … I would hope I would’ve stood up and not let something like that happen, because that’s disgusting.”

From cops, Boyer has gotten some feedback.

“I got a ton of cops that hit me up all the time that are not democrats even, they’re pissed, man,” he said. “It’s a disgrace to the uniform, it’s a disgrace to the badge, it’s a disgrace to the oath they took as well. It sickens them, because they know, ‘This is a major problem we’re gonna have now, it’s one we already do have. But it’s only gonna get worse unless we figure out a way to improve this.’”

Boyer then mentioned the disdain he’s seeing for cops, and asked, “Why would you wanna be a cop? What’s the benefit? It’s hard job that doesn’t pay very well, and everyone hates you. And the reality is we need cops, we need good cops, we need better people to come in and do this. So that’s something that I’m focused on.”

On Brees, Boyer understood his point, but is still frustrated by it.

“Like I said, I feel all those things he feels when the anthem is played, I feel all that,” Boyer said. “What was disheartening, over last three years there’s been such a concerted effort by a lot of players in the league and people around the country, to maintain the narrative that protesting during the national anthem isn’t protesting against the anthem or the military or the flag or the country, it’s not that. It’s protesting during the anthem against police brutality, departments not holding them accountable, racial inequality, social injustice. …