The 2016-2017 season was perhaps among the most openly political years in NFL history, as Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem, Tom Brady’s tacit support for Donald Trump, players’ reactions to Trump’s victory, and even the election’s potential effects on the NFL ratings dominated headlines.
But during the final week of such a tumultuous season, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell chose to say nothing when politics came up at his annual pre-Super Bowl news conference on Wednesday.
“As commissioner of the NFL, I’m singularly focused on the Super Bowl right now,” Goodell told a reporter when asked for his thoughts on the executive order President Donald Trump signed Friday to temporarily ban refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. “We have a unique position to have an event on Sunday that will bring the world together.”
When Goodell announced that next season the NFL would once again play a game in Mexico City, a Hispanic reporter asked what the NFL could do “to help build a better relationship between Mexico and the U.S., and not necessarily build other things” ― a not-so-subtle reference to Trump’s plans to erect a wall along the southern border. Goodell chuckled, but avoided any comment on the wall.
“One of the things that we truly believe in our hearts is that the NFL really does bond communities together and can be a bridge in that way,” Goodell said. “It unites people. We’re going to see it this weekend with the Super Bowl, where millions of people are going to tune in and they’re going to celebrate and they’re going to all forget about other things for at least a short period of time and really focus on having fun and being entertained by the Super Bowl.”
Given the year the NFL has had and everything going on around him, Goodell’s unwillingness to even remotely address the issues at the forefront of seemingly everyone’s minds was striking — and possibly revealing.
It started in the preseason, when Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, refused to stand for the national anthem to protest racism and police killings of African Americans. His protest continued throughout the season, and players across the league and in other sports joined him. Many of Kaepernick’s actions ― he wore a Fidel Castro shirt; he denounced both Trump and Hillary Clinton; he didn’t vote ― sparked repeated rounds of political discussion inside and around football. In November, a group of NFL players visited Congress to discuss police brutality and race relations with lawmakers. In week 13, the league allowed players to dedicate their cleats to charitable causes ― many of which were inherently political.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady made his own statement when reporters noticed a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker. Though Brady shied away from talking about politics after that, Trump, who has referred to him as a “friend,” didn’t: At a late campaign rally in New Hampshire, Trump touted Brady’s support and read a letter he received from Patriots coach Bill Belichick (Patriots owner Bob Kraft, too, is a friend and possible supporter of Trump). And New York Jets owner Woody Johnson served on Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, before last month accepting an ambassadorship representing the Trump administration.
The aura of politics hasn’t lifted just because it’s Super Bowl week, for obvious reasons. Border politics are a major issue across Texas, and the refugee ban is a specific concern in Houston: As SBNation observed this week, Houston is “a haven for refugees” — no American city welcomes more each year, a fact that has helped make Houston one of America’s most diverse cities.
As the NFL’s celebrations kicked off Monday, demonstrators rallied against Trump’s immigration policies outside the Super Bowl media center. Inside, it remained an issue on the minds of players and the media. Falcons owner Arthur Blank criticized Trump, while reporters badgered Brady and Belichick about the president (neither really said anything). A number of players said they would speak out on the order and other political issues after the game. Martellus Bennett, the Patriots tight end, said he won’t visit the White House if New England wins Sunday. Goodell, incidentally, said he had no knowledge of mentions of Trump disappearing from post-media day transcripts.
Goodell’s silence on controversial issues is, ultimately, misleading. He and his league, whether they like to admit it or not, have always been political. The NFL has its own political action committee and has spent millions lobbying Congress. It begs voters to throw hundreds of millions in taxpayer money toward new stadiums. And as much as Goodell tried to root his personal opposition to Kaepernick’s protest in an appeal to patriotism, his and his league’s open embrace of that ideal — often in the form of unquestioned deference to law enforcement and the military — is itself a political position.
This season and the actions players took during it should finally bury the idea that the NFL is disconnected from politics. “Political issues” such as police brutality and refugee bans and even the outcomes of elections affect its players and teams and the communities they are a part of. Goodell seems to believe he can only achieve his goals — $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027, and further growth internationally — by staying mum on divisive political issues and uniting people in their desire to consume more football (NFL regular season ratings, likely affected by an all-consuming presidential election, dropped 8 percent from a year ago). But in an era of newfound athlete activism, it was unrealistic to think NFL players, coaches and teams (and the media that covers them) wouldn’t eventually begin to speak out.
The NFL, and Goodell, love to talk about how “football is family” — presumably for everyone. But sitting atop a league that has become more outspoken, in a city home to so many people who now feel more vulnerable than ever, Roger Goodell used his platform to stick to sports. The refugees and immigrants in the city hosting his Super Bowl don’t have that privilege.