Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart is a CNN political analyst. He was the White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
When I was an executive in the National Football League a few years ago, our organization was consumed by the case of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback whose silent kneeling protest against police brutality arguably led him to lose his NFL career and not be re-signed by any club. No teams wanted to sign a player – even one as talented as Kaepernick – whom they saw as controversial, and, therefore, bad for business.
The NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, and other league executives tried to persuade the teams to change their minds. The league sent owners and players around the country to try to lead a dialogue on race relations and to move, as the sociologist and human rights activist Harry Edwards said, “from protest to progress.” Though Kaepernick didn’t get his job back, I thought we had all done a righteous job, considering.
I was wrong. I think the teams were wrong for not signing him. Watching what’s going on in Minnesota, I understand how badly wrong we were.
I was the league’s executive vice president in charge of communications and government affairs, from 2016-2018. During my time there, we dealt with many issues that captivated the public: Ray Rice and domestic abuse, the “Deflategate” scandal that almost went to the Supreme Court and a variety of football concerns, like what is a catch and how much can players celebrate. Some were very serious, and others seemed a little absurd, but passions run so high for professional football that nothing seems silly to their fans.
But no issue challenged the league and its owners more than Kaepernick and his silent protest during the National Anthem. He started his protest in the preseason of 2016. In fact, the first time he did it no one even noted that he took a seat on the bench rather than stand.
It was only in the second preseason game that an NFL Network reporter, an employee of the league, noticed it and reported the story. Once it broke, Kaepernick worked with a former Green Beret, Nate Boyer, to find a more acceptable way to protest, and the National Anthem kneel – “taking a knee” – was born.
That played out for the whole 2017 season. Some players joined Kaepernick, but by the end of the season, there were only a handful of players kneeling. But those protests started important discussions within the league, specifically involving Goodell, during the offseason. I participated in several long conference calls where the commissioner and leaders of the newly formed Players Coalition grappled with how to use the NFL’s vast platform to promote racial justice in America.
The new season started with very productive dialogue and work proceeding between the players and the league. That all changed on a Friday night in Alabama at a rally for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange, where President Donald Trump called for kneeling players to be fired.
NFL owners should respond to those players “taking a knee” (who were overwhelmingly black) by saying “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired!” he told the crowd.
That one rally changed everything. Although Kaepernick had not been signed in the off season, players’ protests to that point were primarily off the field – not during the anthem or on the field during games. But starting the following Sunday, hundreds of players were now kneeling and a full-blown battle with the President was drawn.
The day after Trump’s rally remarks, Goodell put out a strong statement defending the players, and the owners, even the most conservative ones, put out similar supportive statements. Many of them loved Trump, but they loved the league and the game more.
Over the next few months, the owners and players worked together to put a program in place to address the concerns raised so publicly by Kaepernick, but shared by hundreds of players. In fact, players like Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin had been working on this issue for years before the controversy broke out. The result of that work was an unprecedented commitment, nearly $100 million, to use the NFL platform to highlight racial disparities.
What didn’t happen in this time of progress was a new team for Colin Kaepernick. He worked out with several, but no one wanted to sign someone with his obvious talents, even if the consensus was that he’d be a high-quality backup. And football insiders were clear he had more talent than many of the backups in the league.
Kaepernick was not blocked because the league wanted to punish him for setting off the protests. In fact, just the opposite is true. The commissioner and several other league executives spent a lot of effort prodding and pushing owners to sign him.
But for many owners it always came back to the same thing. Signing Kaepernick, they thought, was bad for business. An executive from one team that considered signing Kaepernick told me the team projected losing 20% of their season ticket holders if they did. That was a business risk no team was willing to take, whether the owner was a Trump supporter or a bleeding-heart liberal (yes, those do exist). As bad of an image problem it presented for the league and the game, no owner was willing to put the business at risk over this issue.
They were willing, though, to spend those millions to help address the problem of racial division in the country. For me, while I was uncomfortable with Colin not being signed, I told myself we were righteous in doing the hard work of making progress.
I was mistaken.
I’m a product of white privilege and all that goes with that. I’ve never been stopped by a police officer and hassled or arrested because of the color of my skin. I can’t begin to know how it feels. But during my time at the league, I did get an education.
I’ll never forget one day, back then, sitting in a meeting and discussing these issues, with everyone going back and forth, when Hall of Famer Curtis Martin said he had something to say. Curtis is soft-spoken and incredibly smart. He calmly told a story about going to look for a new house in a neighborhood on Long Island with his wife and being stopped by the police. He was a star player with the New York Jets, but the police treated him like some treat all blacks – as a danger to the community.