Dave Hyde: The words from Goodell and Brees matter. But will there be real change?

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell looks on before Super Bowl LIV between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 2, 2020 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Fla. - Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America/TNS

It’s a starting point. He’s said he’s sorry. It’s a necessary point. He said he was wrong.

“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and systematic oppression of black people,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a video message. “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.”

It seems to be a turning point in a league that didn’t listen to all its players the last few years — or even in a vanilla statement the last few days. Apologies matter. Words matter. But what comes next matters more.

Where does Goodell and the NFL take this? What will he support his players saying and doing — and does his support matter anymore? How do coaches let players address this?

Sports always is about hope. Here came some out of this time of confrontation across America. Goodell and his bosses, the 32 NFL owners, didn’t take the extra step by injecting the name of Colin Kaepernick into his video. He didn’t mention Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem to spotlight the social problems or confirm his feelings.

So let’s take this step for what it was, which was a change in attitude in response to players growing louder. The players brought this about, too. They affected this change in a manner they fully didn’t four years ago — just like the larger society didn’t, either.

For a time with no games, it’s been a big week in sports. Look at football. A Clemson player called out an assistant coach for using the N-word. Some Iowa players raised issues of racial discrimination. A Florida State player called out his new head coach for saying he’d talked with every player about today’s issues when the coach hadn’t.

The ground is moving under sports in ways it hasn’t. College coaches, take note. College presidents too.

The biggest names in sports didn’t see this even amid the protests over George Floyd’s death. It wasn’t just Goodell who was blindsided, the NFL making a benign statement earlier in the week before the commissioner’s apology on Friday.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees also trotted out the line from a few years ago that he’d never kneel because of his military relatives and because he “will never agree with anyone disrespecting the flag.”

The criticism against Brees, starting with his Saints teammates, caused him to backpedal and re-think his position. He initially apologized, of sorts, not saying exactly where he stood on the protests and the flag.

President Donald Trump injected himself into the conversation, saying Brees shouldn’t have apologized and delivered the same talking point he hijacked this conversation with three years ago.

“ … he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag,” Trump tweeted. “OLD GLORY is to be revered, cherished, and flown high … NO KNEELING.”

Brees quit straddling the fence at that point. He put out a social message directed to Trump that began: “Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities. We did this back in 2017, and regretfully I brought it back with my comments this week.”

Again, it’s a starting point. Again, it looks like a turning point when the NFL commissioner and a prominent white quarterback who directed talk to the flag three years ago now focus it on black lives mattering. We’ll see.

We’re in an odd time in the sports world considering there are no sports. No games. Nothing beyond some nebulous dates for a restart that may or may not happen.

But sports, even in this quiet time, can be a forum for hope. You’re hearing that now. What comes next matters more, starting with justice for Floyd. But apologies matter. Changing words give hope bigger change is on the way.


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