Wednesday: The Preamble
11:41 a.m. Drew Brees, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, is asked about players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States,” Brees said. It’s a feeling the patriotic Brees has had for years. He’s said similar things before. But now the inference that Brees would disapprove of a black player kneeling to protest the oppression of black people was a lit match tossed into a bone-dry forest.
3:35 p.m. Today’s sports culture is interesting. Instead of reaching out to Brees and saying, Hey, that’s insulting to us, teammates and foes alike jeered Brees on social media—first wideout Michael Thomas, then safety Malcolm Jenkins, finally LeBron James. Brees got flash-bombed everywhere. “Sometimes you need to shut the f— up,” said teammate and Players Coalition leader Malcolm Jenkins in an Instagram post he later deleted. As one person close to Brees told me, the social-media rip jobs reminded him of “Lord of the Flies.” In that book, normal British boys get stranded on a desert island and have to fend for themselves, and they spiral into savagery to survive. Sounds about right.
5:10 p.m. Meanwhile, Story Two was percolating and about to boil over. As with many NFL employees, NFL social media creative producer, Bryndon Minter, 27, was angry with the NFL’s word-salad response to the George Floyd murder and the ensuing outcry for a firmer message. Early in the week, with the Floyd killing beginning to dominate society, Minter told his bosses he didn’t want to do business as usual. He couldn’t in good conscience post “Five best Jalen Ramsey interceptions,” and he couldn’t sit by while his employer wasn’t out-front with an action plan for the Floyd story. So Minter, who is white, did something that he knew could cost him his job. What if he could get a player, or players, to voice what they were feeling, adamantly? Working virtually from his kitchen table in Mar Vista (in West L.A.), Minter sent a message to Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, who’d been reacting strongly to the death of Floyd. “Want to help you create content to be heard around the league,” Minter wrote to Thomas. “I’m an NFL social employee and am embarrassed by how the league has been silent this week. The NFL hasn’t condemned racism. The NFL hasn’t said that Black Lives Matter. I want [to] help you put pressure on. And arm you with a video that expresses YOUR voice and what you want from the league. Give me a holler if you’re interested in working together, thanks bro!” Minter said he did not expect a response.
5:33 p.m. He got one, in 23 minutes. Thomas, in New Orleans, answered. He was interested. What could they do? Minter envisioned players telling the NFL they needed to be supported more, and the highest levels of the league needed to come out unambiguously and say peaceful player protest was okay, racism in any form was not, black lives matter, and listen to your players. Thomas okayed the project. “We have the channels—we need the content that can share our voice,” Thomas said. Minter and co-worker Nick Toney, working from his home in New York, went to work.
11 p.m. Minter pinged Thomas and said he’d have a script ready for him to peruse that night. Minter and Toney, bi-Coastal, worked using a Google Doc to add and subtract copy. At one point, one said, “My God! Michael Thomas is in on this!” They kept trimming. “It needed to be snackable,” Minter said. Because Thomas thought he could engage several players to be in on the video, Minter and Toney wrote lines for multiple players. One of the key lines they wanted multiple players in a Zoom-like checkerboard to say was, “WE, the players of the National Football League.” To show the game IS the players. Thomas would lead the video. Minter and Toney wrote this for the emerging leader and young star whose Twitter feed @Cantguardmike is one of the league’s rising social accounts, as if Thomas was speaking directly to Roger Goodell, and for Thomas and other players to lead the video with::
“It’s been 10 days since George Floyd was brutally murdered. How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players? What will it take? For one of us to be murdered by police brutality? What if I was George Floyd?”
Thursday: The Wheels Are In Motion
2 a.m. Thomas got the script after midnight in New Orleans. Loved it. Meanwhile, he began engaging some of the league’s biggest stars to be involved—at the same time he was dealing with the three-alarm fire of what Brees said, prepping for a major Saints team meeting on Thursday. “I’m in awe of how Michael balanced these two huge things,” said Minter. “While simultaneously dealing with the Drew Brees situation and figuring how to handle that, he’s texting all these guys around the league to be involved in this project. Once he was in, he said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll get the best of the best for this.”
8:22 a.m. Drew Brees on Twitter: “I am sorry, and I will do better, and I will be part of the solution. I am your ally.” On CNN, Saints linebacker Demario Davis supported Brees, saying the mark of a leader is admitting a mistake.
10 a.m. By the time Minter woke up, he’d been sent files from Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks of the Vikings and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott. Odell Beckham Jr. sent his files on iCloud. Minter told a supervisor what he was doing, so as not to blindside him, knowing that the supervisor would send the information of this rogue video up the food chain. “I was at peace with whatever happened, at peace with the prospect of losing my job over this,” Minter said. “If I was told I was losing my job in the middle of this, I’d still have put the video out. I was just the vehicle for the players having a voice.”
1:15 p.m. Ordering breakfast in the drive-through lane at Chick Fil-A, Minter got confirmation that Patrick Mahomes was in. Mahomes, the new face of the league; that was big.
1:45 p.m. Jets safety Jamal Adams, via cameraphone from his driver’s seat, sent his “WE, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” and raised his right fist in a black power salute. Mahomes’ video, recorded in his shoe closet, said “WE, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.” This was a kernel of an idea 20 hours ago. Now, Minter knew, it was going to be huge. “When I saw Jamal’s video and his passion, I got goosebumps,” Minter said. “That’s the same emotion my black colleagues working in the league have.”
2 p.m. The Saints team meeting commenced. In a 100-minute meeting via teleconference, Brees emotionally apologized—that much we know, and we’re pretty sure it included tears from Brees. We don’t know a lot, though, because Payton and the Saints threw a news blackout over what happened in the room. I’m guessing the Saints coach is going to channel his inner Parcells over the next couple of months. Noted tough guy/mental-game-player Bill Parcells is a mentor for Payton, who I’d bet will try to find a way to make this this an us-versus-them thing, us against the divisive forces of all media—including the social-media missives from other NFL players and in other leagues.
The weird part of the story is there was one non-Saint in the Zoom meeting: Shaquille O’Neal. The team has guests speak to some virtual team meetings (Snoop Dogg did the honors on one meeting in May), and Shaq happened to be on the schedule Thursday. So there he was, watching the most emotional and important Zoom meeting in NFL history—it’s not a very long history—and when Shaq spoke up, he had something to say. Something, it turns out, that made him quite a valuable participant in this Zoom meeting. As one ear-witness said, O’Neal told the coaches and players words approximating these: They’re going to try to divide you, just like they divided us with the Lakers! Me and Kobe [Bryant], we had a great thing going, but the media divided our team. We could have won five more championships! Stay strong. Don’t let the media divide you! Don’t let social media divide you!
5 p.m. Working on his NFL-issued MacBook Pro on approximately 100 video files of all different quality from 20 NFL players—including Deshaun Watson, Stephon Gilmore, Odell Beckham Jr., Saquon Barkley, Jarvis Landry, Tyrann Mathieu, DeAndre Hopkins and newcomer Chase Young—there was only one player missing: Giants receiver Sterling Shepard. Thomas very much wanted Shepard, and his “I am Laquan McDonald” line, in the final product. Amazingly, the video was just about ready and captioned less than 24 hours after Minter broached the idea to Thomas.
6:32 p.m. A new and bolstered NFL statement was issued for the @NFL Twitter feed. “We stand with the black community because Black Lives Matter. Through Inspire Change, the NFL, Players and our partners have supported programs and initiatives throughout the country to address systemic racism. We will continue using our platform to challenge the injustice around us. To date we have donated $44 million to support hundreds of worthy organizations. This year, we are committing an additional $20 million to these causes and we will accelerate efforts to highlight their critical work. We know that we can and need to do more.”
The NFL kept hearing from its employees that its previous statement was weak and didn’t clearly state it condemns racism—even though its work with the Players Coalition, including a May 26 meeting with Coalition leader Anquan Boldin, laid out a platform of work it would do this year in police reform. The league had been thinking of bolstering the message since Tuesday, so this new statement wasn’t spur-of-the-moment. But it did end up beating the players video by 2.5 hours. “Hearing the league say ‘Black lives matter’ was a start,” one player said.
8:15 p.m. Minter got the video file from Sterling Shepard. “I am Laquan McDonald.” He shoehorned it into the video, polished it, and sent the final product to Thomas. “This is the most insane thing I’ve done in my life,” Minter said. “Unheard of from a creative standpoint.” Less than 28 hours after virtually meeting Michael Thomas, an iconic video (and it will be) was created and posted, and it will affect how people view players, perhaps for a long time.
8:45 p.m. In a text to Minter after watching the video, Thomas wrote: “Amazing work. You are elite.”
9 p.m. The video posted on Saquon Barkley’s account, and seven minutes later Michael Thomas posted. A hit. What was so compelling about it is the tinge of anger that accompanied messages from such widely respected players. Mathieu, for instance, is one of the best leaders on any team in football; Andy Reid gave him a strong leadership role on the Super Bowl Chiefs last year. He was speaking directly to Goodell when he said: “How many time do we need to ask you to listen to your players?” Neatly woven together are 20 voices, saying this: “We will not be silenced. We assert our right to peacefully protest. It shouldn’t take this long to admit … So on behalf of the National Football League, this is what we the players would like to hear you state: We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systemic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”
“A message on behalf of the nfl” pic.twitter.com/iilDpnZfyV
— Michael Thomas (@Cantguardmike) June 5, 2020
9:30 p.m. Sitting in his home in Washington, D.C., former player Donte’ Stallworth, who was politically active as a player and is even moreso now, watched the video. He pumped his fist. “YES! YES!” Stallworth said. Later, he said, “The players are finally wielding this power they’ve always had. I loved it.”
Friday: Black Employees Matter
10 a.m. “I’m going to make a video,” Goodell announces to his executive team on a regular morning videoconference. (League employees are still working from home.) The video was powerful, as were several emails to Goodell from black employees, who make up about 10 percent of the league’s off-the-field work force. One spoke of “hopelessness,” and that got to Goodell. There was a league town hall, co-hosted by M.J. Acosta and Steve Wyche of NFL Network, scheduled for 1 p.m., with Goodell and three guest speakers to discuss race and the state of the league and the country. On the Zoom invitation were 12 faces of black people killed by police in recent years. On another Zoom meeting during the week, about 200 employees, the majority black members of the league’s chapter of the Black Engagement Network, met virtually. “It was a ‘Let it out’ session,” said Jarick Walker, 31, an influencer and talent marketing manager for the league. Walker is black. “A lot of people [black employees] were feeling frustrated. But we got to the point where we weren’t afraid to voice it anymore.”
1 p.m. The 100-minute virtual Town Hall was emotional from the start. One person in the meeting said it was actually Jarick Walker’s question/plea that was the most riveting. Walker was prepared. He was the first employee to speak. “I was outspoken,” Walker told me. “My point, basically, was this: I am unsure where we stand. The NFL is the American sport that brings us all together when disasters happen. The NFL brought the country together after 9/11, after Karina. Here’s another disaster. The NFL’s not bringing us together. Why? We’re America’s game. We need to hear from the mountaintop that we as a league condemn racism.”
When he finished, Walker said, the Zoom Town Hall, with hundreds on it, was silent. “I was shaking,” Walker said. “I broke down in tears.” If Goodell didn’t know now how his black employees felt, he did now. And though he’d already decided to come out strong with his own video, this was another brick in the wall.
3 p.m. Goodell, in a blue sweater in his home 15 miles north of the league office in Westchester County, recorded his 81-second video for posting that evening. He said:
“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. 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. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.
“I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country.
“Without black players, there would be no National Football League, and the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff. We are listening. I am listening.”
4:08 p.m. President Trump, who had once urged NFL owners to fire any “son of a bitch” NFL player for kneeling during the national anthem, criticized Brees for apologizing to his teammates and to the country. NO KNEELING, Trump said. All caps. Now the ball was in Brees’ court.
6:31 p.m. The NFL released Goodell’s statement on Twitter.
We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter. #InspireChange pic.twitter.com/ENWQP8A0sv
— NFL (@NFL) June 5, 2020
7:10 p.m. Drew Brees rebutted Donald Trump’s criticism for apologizing by tweeting: “We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform. We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history! If not now, then when? We as a white community need to listen and learn from the pain and suffering of our black communities.”
7:18 p.m.: Michael Thomas retweeted Goodell’s statement with this line: “Well said Roger.”
10:14 p.m.: Thomas retweeted Brees’ response to Trump with this line: “MY QB” with the flex emoji.
At 5:44 p.m. Saturday, Minter got an email from Goodell. Goodell thanked him for the “powerful and impactful” video. Goodell told Minter he’d love to get him more involved in the league’s social initiatives.
Where the NFL goes from here is a lot like where the country goes from here. Will the push continue? Will the 32 owners in the league, who have the real power, back their commissioner’s words when 15 players on some team choose to kneel during the anthem this year? And make no mistake—that’s coming. How will hardliner Jerry Jones react to a cadre of players kneeling? The threat of the NFL sanctioning players if they kneeled during games in 2018 (a bylaw was passed but never enforced that allowed players to stay in the locker room but not kneel during the anthem) is fresh in players’ heads.
One of the most vocal pro-protest players, Houston safety Michael Thomas, said in a text to me: “It [Goodell’s words and the league’s admission of holding player protests back] is definitely a step in the right direction. However, I personally believe that people are going to call for the league to address what happened to the players who originally protested police brutality and systemic racism and oppression. They will ask that the league not only admit they were wrong for suppressing the voices of the players protesting, but also say their names, just like it’s important to say the names of the countless black people who have been murdered due to police brutality so they don’t die in vain. It’s important that the league says the names Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Kenny Stills. It will allow the players to fully believe them and we could then all move forward together.”
Employees seemed more hopeful.
Maurice Jennings, who is black, is a senior director of influence and brand partnerships at the NFL. From Maplewood, N.J., he said: “I believe in the brand as a unifying force, and this week rejuvenated me. This week has been powerful and historic, because I feel like black voices helped lead the change. I think it’s the beginning of some change in the league. No one was going to settle for ‘not good enough.’ “
From Hollywood, Jarick Walker said: “What really struck me from Roger’s statement was, ‘Without black people, the NFL wouldn’t exist.’ That’s powerful, coming from him. After the town hall, I got so many messages, some from people I didn’t even know. One person emailed me, ‘Thank you for being so brave.’ You know, for the first time, I felt like I wasn’t on an island.” Walker paused for a minute, then said: “You can’t help feeling you changed the system.”