Drew Brees and Roger Goodell grabbed the headlines. But don’t forget what the story is really about

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

On Thursday night, a group of several NFL stars released a video that blew up on social media. In it, they demanded the NFL admit wrongdoing in silencing past player protests while also condemning racism and systematic oppression. 

Less than 24 hours later, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a video of his own, seemingly doing just that.

“We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter,” Goodell said.

It was a stunning statement by Goodell, whose announcement came shortly after President Trump tweeted out a statement supporting Drew Brees. (The Saints quarterback found himself at the center of the controversy this week after his comments to Yahoo Finance about national anthem protests).

In the past, the NFL has appeared to go to great lengths to stay out of the crosshairs of Trump, who has been antagonistic toward kneeling NFL players. But now, here Goodell was, siding with players in spite of Trump

And things only got wilder three hours later, when Brees rebuked Trump’s praise, noting that this is not an issue about the American flag, it has never been and that “we can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from real issues that face our black communities.”

Brees’ decision to hit those tenets and join the growing list of Americans who have rallied around the kneeling players causes — which are fighting police brutality and racial inequality following the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — was widely celebrated.

And for many, it was heartening for many to see Brees and Goodell, two high-profile NFL figures, show increased empathy toward those causes.

The last few days are much bigger than Roger Goodell. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

But the only thing black players want more than your understanding about why they kneel is your tangible, actual help in fighting for the causes they’re kneeling for. 

And in that regard, the fight has just begun.

“There’s a lot of people that are protesting right now and saying they’re for it,” New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis told Yahoo Sports. “Well, there’s going to be a lot of work.”

Why NFL players’ unity in message to Goodell is so important

Early on Friday, long before Goodell and Brees issued their statements, I spoke to Davis, a Saints team captain for who is a member of the NFL Players Coalition. The wins that would come later in the day weren’t even known, and, yet, Davis was already excited by the way the black people and black players stood together to rally around their shared causes. 

“I think we have a unique movement today because all black people said we’re no longer going to stand for this, we’re going to stand up for ourselves,” Davis said. “And there’s been a rallying cry by all ethnic groups in America and around the world to say there is injustice against black people in America and we’re no longer going to stand for it. Anybody that is trying to remain silent and not be a part of it, we’re going to point it out, we’re going to call it out, and we’re going to eradicate racism from the thread of America. I think everybody is just tired of it and ready to move forward, and the time is now.”

And black players being united, he said, is a key. The video that led to Goodell’s statement was a powerful testament to that. It featured many of the league’s brightest young stars, including Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Saints wideout Michael Thomas, and required the type of collaboration and joint agreement on messaging that real change necessitates.

“Yes, yes, yes — it’s a moment of making our voices heard,” Davis said. “We want to be heard that black lives matter, that’s the messaging that we want to put out. And now it’s players, collectively working together, to make sure that we get back to what matters.”

But Davis, who is donating proceeds from his “Man of God” mask sales to the families of Floyd and Arbery, also understands that faith without works is dead. His journey to this point — which is chronicled in his new book — explains why.

He’s a man that went from being arrested as a youth to making it to the NFL, and he attributes how far he’s come to his faith in God. To him, nothing is impossible, even a (relatively) quick turnaround to the inequalities black people face.

Provided we work together, of course.

“It’s been four or five generations that built it, but we can turn it around in one generation,” Davis said. “We all have to keep the movement going, much longer than months. This is a 400-year problem, and it’s not going to be fixed in a couple of months. We all have to be committed to change for years.”

Saints linebacker Demario Davis is not about to let the protests conversation get hijacked. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Demario Davis on what conversations need to be had right now

Commitment begins with action, Davis said, in multiple areas. Those who want to be allies must, for example, use their own resources to directly help the black community and eradicate racism in all forms.

“America, if you want to help, A, realize there’s been a knee on us for 400 years and stop making excuses for the knee that’s there and then, use your resources to build ladders in the black community to help,” Davis said. 

“If you work in a financial institution, for example, use those institutions to help black people specifically. If you’re in politics, use your legislation to check the policies that are there that are holding black people down. In the police force, good police officers should stand up and speak out against those who are doing wrong to move those people out. People can speak up and do something, and that’s where they should be applying their energy.”

That would be a better use of energy, he says, than arguing about whether kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful or speculating about whether players will kneel when the season begins, two particularly hot-button topics.

“I think that’s a conversation that frankly, shouldn’t even be being had right now,” Davis said. “When you’re having a protest, the most important conversation should be not the method, but why there’s a protest. Why is there screaming in the streets? Why are there people standing outside with these signs? Why are there people laying on the ground? Why are those people chanting together? Why is it all these people are coming together? Let’s deal with that. Let’s not talk about something that’s controversial, that derails the conversation.

“We’re talking about making our country better — we don’t need to be talking about anything else but how do we do that. I just think we spend too much time talking about something that happened two years ago, and then talking about a football season that we don’t even know we’re going to have yet. Let’s talk about here and now, what’s in front of us.”

Same goes for whether Brees’ teammates will forgive him for his original comments. (Davis told CNN on Thursday that Brees’ apology was “true leadership.”)

“If any conversation has his name in the topic, it needs to be this: We need to move our conversation away from Drew Brees and back to the issue that matters,” Davis said. “And the issue that matters is dealing with, and finding solutions to racism and social injustice and police brutality in America.”

But when asked a follow-up question about what gives him hope the issue won’t linger among the Saints, Davis’ answer — which again, was long before Brees and Goodell released their statements Friday — served as a microcosm for the way Americans can band together to help prompt real change.

“Our team is a smaller model of what has to happen in America, and for our team to move forward effectively, there has to be the recognition of wrongdoing and addressing of wrongdoing … and then there has to be grace from the black community when the situation changes,” Davis said. “That’s what matters the most, that’s how you build unity. If you don't have both, then you can’t move forward.”

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