The NFL’s U-turn in allowing players to protest against racial injustice shows the league now realises it “hasn’t listened”, says former player and BBC pundit Jason Bell.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the US national anthem in 2016 to highlight racial inequality.
The NFL banned the practice in May 2018, only to put the policy on hold two months later, though the row over kneeling, which is opposed by US president Donald Trump, has continued.
Following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, after being restrained by a white police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May, NFL stars called on the league to condemn racism. Commissioner Roger Goodell responded by admitting the NFL had made mistakes.
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“When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee he wanted people to listen, to understand, to bring awareness,” former Houston Texans cornerback Bell told Sportshour on the BBC World Service.
“Obviously that didn’t happen and that is why players stepped up to the challenge, because no one is listening.
“And now everyone is coming back and admitting ‘we were wrong, we should’ve listened, you told us’.”
On Thursday, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees apologised for saying kneeling protests “disrespect the flag” of the United States following criticism, including by team-mate Malcolm Jenkins.
“People are realising that they haven’t listened,” added Bell.
“That’s why Malcolm Jenkins was so emotional – he thought his brothers in the locker room had heard him, what he was trying to say. But he realised that they weren’t listening at all.
“Drew Brees has come back and he’s tried to make it right and I commend him for that, because that kind of action is what we continually need to see.”
Fellow BBC NFL Show pundit and two-time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora said he was a “big fan” of Goodell but that his video statement would not have happened without “the best and brightest black NFL players… demanding it”.
“I ask rather than poke holes in this video, and say what they should have done three years ago, that we learn the real lesson here,” he added.
“That only when the strongest amongst us stand up and show real strength can we actually get what we want – I’m so proud of those players. It’s a lesson for everybody.”
What does this mean for Kaepernick?
Goodell did not name Kaepernick in his statement, while leading figures in sport and entertainment have said the NFL owes him an apology.
Kaepernick has not played since becoming a free agent in 2017 and filed a grievance against NFL owners that year, believing they were conspiring not to hire him because of the kneeling protest.
The two sides resolved the grievance under a confidential agreement in February 2019.
Bell said that Goodell did not need to name Kaepernick because he is “bigger than the NFL” and “doesn’t need the NFL to legitimise his movement – he is the movement”.
He added: “My thoughts on Colin Kaepernick are so high, no one needs to come out and say his name because the world is saying his name.
“Him continuing to do what he’s doing with his foundation is having a greater impact on society as a whole.”
Bell said he was “so proud” of what young people are doing, citing Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, this year’s number one overall draft pick, using his platform to call on white athletes to help the black community.
“That gives me so much hope,” he said. “So many young people are seeing this and they don’t want this future so they are going to change it now.
“Corporations, politicians and public policy will change when the masses get together and force that change.”