Ron Cook: Has the NFL learned its lesson about peaceful protests?
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Ron Cook: Has the NFL learned its lesson about peaceful protests?

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Column: Goodell's Mea Culpa is a Good Start — and No More

FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2018, file photo, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a news conference in Irving, Texas. Coaches will be allowed to return to NFL team facilities beginning Friday as the league continues preparation for training camps and its season. Commissioner Roger Goodell told the 32 clubs on Thursday, June 4, 2020, that coaching staffs may from team complexes starting Friday.

Donald Trump vs. Roger Goodell and the NFL owners.

And you thought Steelers-Ravens was going to be a must-see fight?

Goodell stood up for the black players in his league Friday night, pledging in a minute-long video to support their fight against racism and social injustice. We'll know soon enough if he and the NFL owners are sincere or if they shamefully will cave under pressure from Trump the way they did a few years ago.

A quick revisit of an amazing timeline that has brought us to this point:

- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was asked Wednesday by Yahoo Finance about the possibility of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem before games this fall in a peaceful protest against police brutality. "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said.

- Black athletes in all sports immediately condemned Brees for his comments. So did one white future Hall of Fame quarterback. "It has NEVER been about an anthem or a flag. Not then. Not now," Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers tweeted.

- Brees apologized twice Thursday, saying, "I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country ... Those words have become divisive and hurtful."

- Trump criticized Brees on Friday for apologizing. "We should be standing up (for the anthem) straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart. There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag - NO KNEELING!"

- Brees directed a strong message back at Trump a few hours later. "We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities. We must shift our attention to the real issues of systematic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality and judicial and prison reform."

- Brees was saluted by athletes everywhere, including teammates who tore into him for his initial remarks. "MY QB," Saints receiver Michael Thomas tweeted with a flexing biceps emoji.

- Several prominent black NFL players, including Thomas, Patrick Mahomes, Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr., posted a powerful 70-second, "Black Lives Matter" video Thursday night demanding the NFL to condemn racism and admit wrong for silencing the players from peacefully protesting.

- Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson told the Houston Chronicle on Friday that players are "all ready to take a knee together going into this season, without a doubt."

- Goodell responded to the players' video with his brief video, saying the NFL condemns racism and was wrong for not listening to the players earlier. "We encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest."

I'm sure there has been a more impactful 72-hour period in sports, but I can't think of one.

Many eyes will be on the NFL players when the new season starts - hopefully - Sept. 10 when the Houston Texans visit the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. There probably will be no fans in the stands at Arrowhead Stadium because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there will be television cameras to document any protests. Maybe it will be players kneeling - black players and white players. Or maybe players locked arm-in-arm in unity. Or maybe players with fists raised. The form of protest isn't nearly as important as the message, that systematic racism and police brutality against minorities must stop.

Rodgers is right. The protests were never about the flag or the heroes who have and are protecting it. They are about the brutal, unnecessary death of black man George Floyd at the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and so many other deaths of innocent black people, decade after decade. Those deaths, finally, must serve a purpose. Floyd and the black community deserve that. All of America deserves it.

Check out what one of the most respected figures in sports had to say Saturday about Floyd's death:

"I'm just embarrassed as a white person to know that that can happen," five-time NBA champion coach Gregg Popovich said in an emotional video released by the San Antonio Spurs. "To actually watch a lynching. We've all seen books, and you look in the books and you see black people hanging off of trees, and you are amazed. But we just saw it again. I never thought I'd see that, with my own eyes, in real time.

"It's like the neighborhood where you know there's a dangerous corner and you know that's something's going to happen someday and nobody does anything. And then a young kid gets killed and a stop sign goes up. Well, without getting too political, we've got a lot of stop signs that need to go up - quickly - because our country is in trouble. And the basic reason is race."

Popovich clearly gets it.

We'll see if Goodell and the NFL owners do.

Racism in the NFL has been exposed in the past month. The league had to strengthen its Rooney Rule, almost begging teams to hire minorities as general managers and head coaches. It was embarrassing.

Now, Goodell and the owners have been challenged by their players to actually take a stand against racism and police brutality. That's why there should be more scrutiny of them than of the players, to see if Goodell's message in his video is real or just a bunch of words. They have to know Trump will be coming after them again when there is a player protest, just as he did in 2017 when he blasted former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others for kneeling during the anthem. "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired! He's fired!'" Trump bellowed at a rally in Alabama. "You know, some owner is going to do that. And that owner, they don't know it (but) they'll be the most popular person in this country."

As it turned out, Goodell and all of the NFL owners followed Trump's advice.

They blackballed Kaepernick for his peaceful protest and tried to institute a rule that said all players had to stand during the anthem or stay in the locker room.

Goodell and the owners were so weak then. We're going to find out if they are any stronger now.

Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at www.post-gazette.com

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