When Jarick Walker went to work for the National Football League seven months ago, he couldn’t have known the big social moment he was walking into.
The Hyde Park native and Boston College graduate is part of the NFL’s social media team, connecting the league with influencers and celebrities who help build one of corporate America’s most recognizable brands.
But when he spoke on a Zoom call before hundreds of colleagues in a league meeting last week, it was with a different goal: to help push commissioner Roger Goodell to embrace peaceful protest by players and social change.
Walker had written a speech in advance of the meeting. He spoke at the earliest opportunity, concerned that his nerves could get the best of him.
“I said that we need to apologize to the players,” Walker said. “We need to condemn racism and white supremacy from the mountaintop. And we needed to say ‘Black lives matter.’ ”
“We know coming from the NFL that would be so powerful and encourage the country to go in that direction.”
Goodell surprised millions last week with his seemingly abrupt about-face on player protests, which he — and the owners who employ him — had consistently opposed from the time Colin Kaepernick began to kneel.
But the story of Goodell’s change of heart is one of a leader who listened to a groundswell of respectful but firm protest within his organization. Unbidden, a young marketing manager, Bryndon Minter, recruited New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas to post a widely watched video on Instagram in which he and other star Black players demanded that the league support Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, a longstanding group of Black employees — the Black Employee Network, or BEN — worked any internal levers they could.
And, in the end, Goodell yielded to the magnitude of this historic moment.
I have to point out here the one huge thing Goodell did not do in his newfound moment of wokeness: he never mentioned Kaepernick’s name, even as he reversed the unspoken policy that led to his banishment from the NFL.
Still, Goodell changed the stance of the league. You only have to look at the ratings for any Super Bowl — or the prices the ads command — to appreciate the potential impact of an NFL that embraces protest in the name of racial justice.
“He could have done a million different things, but he chose to listen,” said NFL marketing manager Lucy Hallowell, another Boston-area native. “I think that speaks volumes about who he is. I know he’s not all the way there, but it’s a step, and for a brand like the NFL it’s a big step.”
The league itself has plenty of internal work to do, employees told me. While 70 percent of the players are Black, they estimate the league office is perhaps 10 percent Black. It goes without saying that nearly all of the billionaire owners are white, and so are most of their high-ranking executives.
Minter said Goodell has reached out to him and others following his announcement to discuss next steps for the league.
“I told Roger I want to hold him accountable, and I want him to hold me accountable,” Minter said. That means looking at hiring in the league office, as well as ensuring that the NFL’s marketing across various platforms reflects the diversity on the field.
But this moment — and the NFL’s outsized place in American culture — seem to be prompting a moment not just of public reckoning, but of private reflection.
“I come from a background of white privilege and have lived in kind of a bubble,” Hallowell said. “I always thought I wasn't racist because I didn't see color but now I realize that’s not it.”
Walker told me he burst into tears after speaking to his colleagues about the need for change. He told them about how football had helped his family, newly arrived from Jamaica, to assimilate. He spoke to them about what football means, what the NFL’s impact can mean. And his boss heard him, and his many teammates and allies.
The work isn’t done. Not even close.
“The fight goes on and we’re going to keep pushing for change,” Walker said. “We’re going to keep pushing this in new directions.”