We do not know, for certain, when football will return. No one knows if Week 1 of the NFL season will take place as presently scheduled. Will stadiums be empty? Will COVID-19 return for a second wave? Will the season conclude as normal, with a Super Bowl in February?
What we do know is that at some point NFL players will stand on a sideline before the start of a weekend of games. Nearly 100 of them will be on the field prior to kickoff. Games will be played again, somehow, sometime, someway. Eventually.
And when that occurs, players will kneel. Based on what I am hearing from the player and agent community, I believe they will kneel en masse in a large-scale display of solidarity with those who continue to protest in the streets against police brutality and the systematic killing of people for the color of their skin. So many NFL players and, now, even coaches and front office types are actively engaged in the movement sweeping the country and the world, walking and shouting for change, that there is a strong sense there is no going back now.
Following Roger Goodell's statement late last week, when he read back what the faces of the league asked him to, in what many have perceived as a mea culpa for the NFL's earlier statement in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing by police in Minnesota, there does not seem to be much gray area or room to equivocate about the NFL's official stance on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Nor on Colin Kaepernick's personal, silent, peaceful statement which started this all (even though Goodell has yet to mention Kaepernick's name in connection to it as protests sprung up around the world these last weeks).
Indeed, Goodell's message, admitting the league was "wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier" and then encouraging "all to speak out and peacefully protest," doesn't appear to leave much wiggle room as to what will be condoned. Shortly after Goodell posted his 81-second video, I heard back from some officials on Park Avenue who said that, yes, in fact, the NFL is out of the business of sanctioning or discouraging any player from taking a knee, just as players like Eric Reid and Kenny Stills did a season ago without penalty (the fact that Reid remains unsigned is worth noting, of course, along with Kaepernick's three-year banishment from the league).
When Goodell says, "I personally protest with you and want to be a part of the much-needed change in this country," I know some current and former players believe that to be a message of intent that Goodell would, in fact, be willing to take a knee in Week 1, or whenever the commissioner is able to travel to games as he normally would and whenever there are anthems being played again. Sources who were involved in various online calls between Goodell and league employees tell me that the commissioner capitulated on virtually everything he was asked to do by them, and understood what needed to be done at this critical juncture. "The only thing he fell short on was signing Kap," said one person involved in a large-scale call.
As we all know, these are the most uncertain of times. But what I believe we all could agree on is the fact that long-embedded scourge of systematic racial oppression and economic injustice and an inequitable criminal justice system is not going to be solved between now and whenever the NFL kicks off. The need for change and the fervor for change is not going to quell in the coming weeks; the voices of these athletes are not going to quell in the coming weeks, either.
If anything, Kaepernick's movement is picking up steam, and these problems will not be solved by September. I don't know where this country is going, and whatever the ongoing impact of COVID-19 will be, but I do know the NFL is going to do whatever it can to play as many games as it can. And I have a hard time seeing the 2020 season not open with the social issues that are so much at the fore right now still a huge part of the national conversation.
And as we know, that conversation will include the NFL and its players -- with it being an NFL player, after all, who began it all -- and with players more willing to wield their power and leverage now than perhaps ever before, with Goodell's quick response to their pleas a telling example. I think it would be naïve to think that will change anytime soon, and I can't imagine a start to an NFL season this summer that did not include some league-wide initiatives that attempt to address the pain and anger in our streets right now.
George Floyd's death will be a part of that conversation, as will the ongoing tensions between police and constitutionally protected protesters across the land. Players will be doing what Kaepernick first did.
So it's fair to assume some players – perhaps many – who ignored or rebuked this movement before will no longer be able to do so. It's fair to contemplate an opening slate of games in which players – and maybe owners – are no longer locked in arms, but rather on their knees. Perhaps with Goodell among them.