I’m not sure whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell expected the scattered fans at Arrowhead Stadium to boo the pregame moment of unity on opening night. Somewhere along the line in their thousand actuarial meetings pertaining to whether they should support the players in their quest for—gasp—equality, it must have come up.
But if we’ve learned anything about the weatherpeople who run this league and the country at large, continued support for such things always depends on which way the wind is blowing. This offseason, in an incredible and swift moment of togetherness from the league’s players, the NFL’s hand was forced. Accept what Colin Kaepernick was trying to warn the country about and acknowledge he had a point. Invest in programs and initiatives that could benefit disparaged communities. Support players who, in their precious little off time, are helping to pass legislation, arrange meetings with local law enforcement and draw attention to systemic racial injustice.
Or, run the league without them.
And so we got Thursday night. Antiracism signage in the back of the end zone. A pregame Alicia Keys concert in which one of her backup singers donned a No. 7 T-shirt. Names of victims of police brutality on the back of players’ helmets. The singing of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" before the national anthem. Players choosing not to be on the field for either. Players choosing to kneel for some. Promotional ad after promotional ad encouraging unity. "Black Lives Matter" shown on a football stadium scoreboard mere miles from the Kansas-Missouri border.
Some of it was nice to see. Some of it was cringeworthy as a tiny pocket of announcers and pundits tried to hang on desperately to “both sides” of the “issue.” Some of it was energizing, as we started having conversations about the black experience from Black analysts on national television before the season opener. And, as we saw on the field in Kansas City, as players from both teams locked arms before the start of the game, some of it was roundly rejected by a portion of the league’s intended audience.
Maybe it’s an outlier. Maybe we’re making the familiar mistake of placing too much attention on a small pocket of people determined to wander through life with their eyes closed. But maybe this thing gets uglier than we ever expected. Maybe the rhetoric of 2016, the framing of players as "sons of b------," the letter-writing campaigns and the supposed ratings dip were mere child’s play. Maybe the NFL continues to be the battleground it never wanted to be, especially as we draw closer to November and the sitting president, who received abundant donations from a large portion of NFL owners during his first campaign, fumbles around the couch cushion for some new (old) ammunition.
Will Goodell and the NFL stick with their plan? Will they, like their players, refuse to bend amid the storm? In Week 11, will we still be able to hear Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy providing a realistic slice of life that most of us are privileged to ignore?
We talk all the time about keeping the energy after a seismic event. Continuing to find the stamina when the rest of the world has moved on, back to their bunkers of self-interest. Thursday night was the culmination of an offseason’s worth of muscle from the NFL’s brightest stars. It was a massive apology billboard for all the waffling and wavering over the past four years. It was an absent parent ordering your birthday gift five months after the fact, shipping it via Amazon to the house with a little card that says, “We cool?”
But today is a different day; the morning after all of the built-up capital has been spent and used. Today is when the blowback starts. Today is when owners tune in to their morning opinion channel of choice and ingest the inevitable and ridiculous response to Thursday night and how it is somehow, unquestionably un-American.
What happens now? What happens if the boos persist? What happens if the polls shift? What happens when the wind changes?