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The NFL Announces A New Holiday. It's Listening. But Is It Enough?

The NFL logo on the 50-yard line at an empty NFL stadium.
Bryan Allen
Getty Images
The NFL logo on the 50-yard line at an empty NFL stadium.

Is the NFL newly woke?

Many say for a league that's been criticized for lagging behind on issues of race, it seems that way.

Friday, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the NFL will observe June 19th as a recognized holiday. The day, referred to as Juneteenth, commemorates the effective end of slavery in the U.S. Goodell made the announcement in a memo to league offices in New York City, New Jersey and Los Angeles.

Dear NFL Colleagues:

Juneteenth, celebrated annually on June 19th, commemorates the effective end of slavery in the United States. Though the Emancipation Proclamation, made effective by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that all persons held as slaves be freed, slavery persisted throughout the course of the Civil War. It was not until two and a half years later, on June 19th 1865, when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas and declared the war to be over, that all of those enslaved became free.

The power of this historical feat in our country's blemished history is felt each year, but there is no question that the magnitude of this event weighs even more heavily today in the current climate. Juneteenth not only marks the end of slavery in the United States, but it also symbolizes freedom – a freedom that was delayed, and brutally resisted; and though decades of progress followed, a freedom for which we must continue to fight. 

This year, as we work together as a family and in our communities to combat the racial injustices that remain deeply rooted into the fabric of our society, the NFL will observe Juneteenth on Friday, June 19th as a recognized holiday and our league offices will be closed. It is a day to reflect on our past, but more importantly, consider how each one of us can continue to show up and band together to work toward a better future.


Goodell's memo follows an announcement from the day before, that the NFL is pledging to donate $250 million over 10 years to a fund to combat systemic racism and support the battle against injustices faced by African Americans. The pledge extends what the league already has contributed...a reported $44 million....as part of its work with the Players Coalition, a player-started advocacy group working on racial equality and social justice issues.

And then a week ago, Goodell released avideo in which he condemned racism, stated black lives matter and admitted the NFL was wrong for not listening earlier to players protesting against police brutality and racial inequality. Goodell's video was in direct response to another video put together by some of the NFL's biggest stars, all African-American, calling on the Commissioner to make the statements he ultimately made.

The league and its commissioner appear highly responsive right now, to players and the protest movement sweeping this country, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

But one dramatic week of heightened awareness hasn't rid the NFL of its many critics.

A video apology to protesters is nice, they say, but where is the public apology to Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started the protests in 2016, and who still doesn't have a job in the NFL? Where are people of color in some of the NFL's most prominent and prestigious positions? 28 of 32 head coaches are white; only two general managers are people of color; only two offensive coordinators and two quarterback coaches in the NFL are minorities.

One dramatic week of heightened awareness is good. But in the NFL, even the league admits there's work left to do.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.