The NFL, which first began a social justice program after players protested police brutality and racial injustice several years ago, announced Thursday it will commit a quarter of a billion dollars over 10 years to a fund to combat systemic racism and support the battle against injustices faced by African Americans.
For a league that was roiled when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in protest nearly four years ago -- and which has seen players be the target of attacks from elected officials, including the president, who sought to conflate the protests with disrespect for the flag and military -- the contributions are a significant step toward backing players, and immerse the league in an issue that has galvanized Americans in protest for nearly three weeks since the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
One person familiar with the league's program even said the league would be willing to work with Kaepernick on social justice initiatives.
"We wouldn't be where we are today without the work Colin and other players have led off," the person said. "That is a key point here. We listened to our players. We needed to listen more, we needed to move faster. We heard them and launched a social justice platform because of what Colin was protesting about. The players have always been an essential piece of this effort and this campaign. It would be awesome to engage Colin on some of the work we are doing. He's doing real impactful work. Getting him in some way would be amazing for us. There's a lot of work to do to get to that point. We're certainly open and willing to do that."
Last week, after a group of star African American players demanded action from the league, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a video in which he declared "Black Lives Matter", said the league had been wrong for not listening to players earlier and encouraged players to speak out. He said he wanted to be part of much-needed change. The video itself was stunning, because Goodell's support of player protests represented a substantial turnaround for the league that had created -- though never implemented -- a policy that allowed players who wanted to protest to remain in the locker room, but insisted they stand for the national anthem if they were on the field.
Even before last week's videos and today's announcement, the league had donated $44 million to its social justice programs. That money had funded 20 national social justice grant partners and made matching contributions to 350 local grassroots organizations identified by players and former players. Now, that fund will balloon to $250 million in all, with the league working with players to identify and work with programs that address criminal justice reform, police reform and economic and educational advancement for African Americans. The league also announced it will continue to leverage NFL Network and its other media properties to "place an increased emphasis on raising awareness and promoting education of social justice issues to our fans."
"As someone who has personally lived through episodes of racism and injustice, and can unfortunately relate to what the majority of the NFL players encounter on a daily basis, I can say with complete conviction that we now have a real effort at the NFL to bring real and overdue change," Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan said. "Results won't come automatically. Success will require constant attention, partnership and hard work. But, as a league, we've never been in a better position to answer our obligation to the payers, everyone who loves the NFL, and to the community we serve."
The person familiar with the league's decision said conversations had taken place over the last week, with Goodell and owners wanting to make it clear that the league's commitment to social justice work was for the long term. The expanded commitment to the league's existing initiatives, said the person familiar with the program, should make clear that the NFL does not have an end date in sight for how long it will work on social justice causes.
"There was just a real desire to put another stake in the ground and say, we're not done here yet," the person said. "There is so much more work to do and this is not a short term problem we can fix in the next couple of years."
The NFL has been criticized in the past for throwing its vast financial resources at problems and the person familiar with the program acknowledged that while investment and funds are needed to generate change, the NFL also needs to show the impact the donations are having. Among the organizations that have received social justice grants from the NFL are the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which documents and confronts drivers of poverty and inequity in Alabama's criminal justice system and changes systems through legislative action, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which advocates for transformational criminal justice reform, the National Urban League, a civil rights and urban advocacy organization with 90 affiliates serving 300 communities, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the United Negro College Fund.
"What are we doing to make sure we see change over that period of time," the person said. "It is real action being taken here. It is not just dollars."