Opinion: Roger Goodell’s ‘We, the NFL’ statement was good. But owners’ actions will matter more.

Black Lives Matter

The voices, and the faces that they belonged to, carried so much weight. The inflection that punctuated every word conveyed so much passion. Roger Goodell couldn’t have ignored the challenge even if he wanted to.

And so, with a video of his own, the NFL commissioner did his best on Friday evening to signal to the star-studded group that demanded support in its fight against racism — the entire 2,000-player membership body — that he is indeed listening and watching with concern.

Now, however, the pressure falls on the owners of America’s most powerful sports league. They must bring validity to Goodell’s words.

Sure, the commissioner said all of the right things as he looked into the camera and declared, “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.”

But Goodell’s response is just that: His response, not the NFL’s. And it will take time to see what kind of action follows before players, coaches and fans learn just how strongly the NFL believes that black lives matter, and just how badly the league wants to be a part of the sorely needed change.

Goodell certainly believes in diversity. Looking at the hires he has made to his staff during his nearly 14 years as commissioner, plenty of people of color and women hold key positions. But Goodell’s beliefs and the NFL’s beliefs are two entirely different things. History tells us this.

Goodell works for 32 different ownership groups, and it’s their decision-making that matters most. It’s their actions that have long smacked of racial insensitivity and indifference. 

Goodell didn’t blacklist Colin Kaepernick for peacefully protesting police brutality and oppression of people of color. The owners worried that a Negro taking a knee during the national anthem would anger their unsympathetic fan bases and corporate sponsors, and badly damage their bottom line.

Goodell hasn’t passed over highly qualified people of color for decades for head coaching, general manager, team president and coordinator positions. The owners lazily and arrogantly stick to the good ol’ boy network and nepotism when filling the most powerful positions in their organizations. 

Goodell hasn’t made such a mockery of the Rooney Rule that additional diversity hiring measures were recently put in place to give people of color more legitimate opportunities for career advancement. Again, the owners and team presidents have committed these transgressions.

So, the “We, the NFL” statement was nice, but let’s see some evidence from Goodell’s bosses before we pat the league on the back. Let’s see more action. Genuine action. 

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Since 2017, the league and its owners certainly have made an effort to support the Players Coalition – the non-profit formed by current and former players who wanted to take Kaepernick’s protests a step further by working with lawmakers for legislative reform, improved education and police-community relations. 

The owners have contributed roughly $44 million to social justice initiatives. Although that money is accomplishing real change on the state and local levels, some critics will always view these contributions as an attempt to appease players and dissuade them from protesting. Hush money.

Whether true or not, the owners must show more before we believe the NFL truly wants to help spearhead change. They must be willing to accept accountability. 

The NFL must continue to use its media platforms to promote awareness of the ongoing racial inequalities that its players are combating. If those players choose to protest this season, so be it. The owners should provide support of those peaceful efforts without fear of backlash.

Financial contributions must increase, and they should be distributed with the highest level of transparency and input from the players working in the trenches with community leaders. The NFL must recruit corporate sponsors to join their efforts to improve conditions in the black, brown and other underprivileged communities.

The owners must work to atone for decades of poor minority hiring practices. No, they can’t just go out and fire 15 white head coaches and 10 white general managers and oust six white owners to replace them with people of color. That’s neither realistic nor fair. No aspiring NFL coach or GM wants to be a token hire.

But team decision-makers must be intentional about expanding the net they cast when considering candidates for top positions. Head coaches and general managers must work to truly develop assistants of color (the majority of them being former players) and position them for real and advancement rather than typecasting them and stunting their growth. 

While – or if – they chip away at this list of truth-telling actions, the NFL’s owners must at last welcome Kaepernick back to the field. You can’t have Goodell say, “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,” then not give Kaepernick a legitimate chance to resume his career. 

That’s like deliberately destroying your neighbor’s property, apologizing, but refusing to make it right. The actions reflect true intentions — not the words.

So the blacklisting efforts against Kaepernick must end. Who knows whether he can play anymore, but he must at least receive a training camp invite and opportunity to answer this question one way or the other. And if he makes a team, and wants to continue protesting, so be it. If the NFL truly cares about its players’ voices, their rights to peacefully protest, their desires to make the world a better place, all of this has to happen.

Statements are nice. But all that matters are the actions.

If we look around five years from now, and the offices of team presidents, general managers, head coaches and coordinators feature more faces of color, if more lives have improved thanks to the community and legislative efforts of the league and its players, if more hearts have changed within the league, then we’ll know the NFL truly believes that black lives matter.

But for now, the league’s owners are merely on the clock. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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