Michael Bennett, weighing a civil rights lawsuit against the Las Vegas Police Department after alleging racial profiling and excessive use of force, received a show of support from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that may have sent a message in more ways than one.
“Michael Bennett represents the best of the NFL – a leader on his team and in his community,” Goodell said in a statement released by the league late Wednesday. “Our foremost concern is the welfare of Michael and his family. While we understand the Las Vegas police department will address this later … the issues Michael has been raising deserve serious attention from all of our leaders in every community. We will support Michael and all NFL players in promoting mutual respect between law enforcement and the communities they loyally serve and fair and equal treatment under the law.”
Goodell vouched for Bennett and played it down the middle at the same time. But the fact that he responded to the controversial detainment of the Seattle Seahawks defensive end – part of which was captured on a video released by TMZ – is progress in itself.
More: Pete Carroll: Michael Bennett police incident an example of ‘reality of inequality’
Amid his icy relations with the NFL Players Association, affected by hard-line rulings on discipline, Goodell showed compassion for an individual player.
Too often in recent years, Goodell – who hadn’t talked to Colin Kaepernick about the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s national anthem protests when I asked in May, and perhaps still hasn’t – seemed to have a disconnect with players.
By contrast, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver enjoys the opposite perception, given his tendency to quickly reach out to players when social issues arise.
“Adam Silver talked to players about protests,” former NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth told USA TODAY Sports. “That doesn’t happen in the NFL.”
Foxworth, now a senior writer for The Undefeated, an ESPN website devoted to African-American issues and culture, previously served as president of the NFLPA. After retiring from the NFL, he served as chief operating officer for the National Basketball Players Association.
“I don’t think the NBA is as good as it seems to be, nor is the NFL as bad,” Foxworth said, referring to relations between the players and their respective commissioners. “But the perception is there. In the NBA, the players believe the league office cares about them.”
Goodell’s popularity among NFL players has been in the pits for some time, taking a turn for the worse as the acrimonious labor talks in 2011 included a lockout.
Perhaps Goodell sensed that a statement on behalf of Bennett – one of the NFL’s most outspoken activists on racial matters – could be pivotal, if not just the right thing to do.
Beyond that, Foxworth believes it is important for the NFL, with African-Americans constituting more than 70% of its players, to understand the social issues concerning a significant number of its constituents – with more of them speaking out since Kaepernick (now out of the NFL) began his national anthem protests in August 2016.
Kaepernick’s protest railed against social inequalities and police brutality, although many mistook it as a slight on the military and the American flag.
The NFL, meanwhile, has traditionally presented its product wrapped in the flag. So, while the NFL is proactive in supporting numerous worthy causes – including breast cancer awareness, stamping out domestic violence, disaster relief and saluting the military – it has not devoted similar energy to combating social inequalities stemming from racism despite the large percentage of African-American players in the league.
“I think the NFL has started to venture into issues that are outside of their traditional jurisdiction,” Foxworth said. “They want to protect their image, which they clearly believe is connected to their profitability. But they can’t pick and choose. When things come to your front door, you need to respond to them.”
Bennett is at the front door now. Maybe Goodell’s response reflects a different tone for how the NFL will use its clout.