The NFL Will Observe Juneteenth as a League Holiday

Football's response to the Black Lives Matter movement seems to be evolving

colin kaepernick kneeling in protest of police brutality
The NFL has pledged $250 million to fight racism—the subject of Colin Kaepernick's kneeling protest that led to his ban from the sport. Getty Images
Headshot of Mary Emily O

The National Football League announced on Friday in an internal memo that it will observe Juneteenth as a league holiday, joining the increasing ranks of companies including Google, Nike and Twitter planning to give their employees June 19 off.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of legal slavery in the U.S. in 1965, when the last remaining enslaved African Americans were freed from the binds of the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War, and is celebrated annually within the Black community.

In the memo, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Juneteenth will be “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.”

“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,” Goodell wrote. “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.”

The move was quickly criticized on social media by fans, who pointed out that the league has still not offered an apology or a reinstatement to blacklisted former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick—who filed a collusion lawsuit in 2017 accusing the NFL of shunning him from the sport because of his activism against police killings of unarmed Black men.


On Monday, Goodell went on SportsCenter to seemingly invite Kaepernick back into the league—if a team is willing to sign him. “If he wants to resume his career in the NFL, then obviously it’s gonna take a team to make that decision,” he said. “But I welcome that, support a club making that decision and encourage them to do that.”

Kaepernick’s name was also raised by many after the NFL initially responded to the growing protests against police brutality, ignited after footage of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police went viral, by tweeting “Black Lives Matter” on June 4. Star player Michael Bennett told The Daily Beast that Goodell saying Black Lives Matter was “like a slap in the face,” criticizing the league’s treatment of Black players and sharing his own experiences with police harassment and brutality.

The NFL has also seen pushback from Native American advocates after the Washington Redskins tweeted support for the Black community. The Redskins have been sued twice by Native Americans asking the team to change its name. According to a 2018 resolution adopted by the National Congress of American Indians, the word “redskin” has a direct connotation to the murder of Native American people.

“The Washington team’s R-word name derives from policies of colonization in which bounties were paid for the bloody skins of American Indian and Alaska Native men, women and children as proof of their killings,” the resolution reads.

On Thursday, the NFL announced an “expanded social justice commitment” that will see $250 million pledged over 10 years to “combat systemic racism and support the battle against the ongoing and historic injustices faced by African Americans.”

“The NFL and our clubs will continue to work collaboratively with NFL players to support programs to address criminal justice reform, police reforms, and economic and educational advancement,” the NFL said in Thursday’s statement. “In addition to the financial commitment, we will continue to leverage the NFL Network and all of our media properties to place an increased emphasis on raising awareness and promoting education of social justice issues to our fans and help foster unity.”

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.