Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Live Event/Special

CNN TONIGHT: U.S. Kills Al Qaeda Leader Al-Zawahiri In Drone Strike In Afghanistan; NBA Legend Bill Russell Remembered As An American Hero; Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson Suspended For Six Games For Sexual Misconduct Allegations. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired August 01, 2022 - 21:00   ET



RANDI KAYE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We wanted to clarify that the party may not have formally endorsed a candidate. But it has not been neutral, in this race.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Randi, appreciate that. Thanks.

The news continues. Want to hand it over to Laura Coates and CNN TONIGHT.


LAURA COATES, CNN HOST, CNN TONIGHT: Thanks, Anderson. Nice to see you.

I'm Laura Coates. And this is CNN TONIGHT, on a huge breaking news night.

The U.S. has now killed the world's top terror target. More than 20 years, after 9/11, the hunt for Bin Laden's number two, is now over. Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed, in a drone strike, in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul.

President Biden addressed the nation with details, earlier this evening.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more.

After carefully considering a clear and convincing evidence, of his location, I authorized a precision strike that would remove him, from the battlefield, once and for all.

One week ago, after being advised that the conditions were optimal, I gave the final approval, to go get him.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COATES: Biden described Al-Zawahiri, as a terrorist who, quote, "Carved a trail," unquote, of violence, against U.S. citizens, reminding he was the mastermind of attacks, like the bombing of the USS Cole, in 2000, which killed 17 U.S. sailors.

The FBI just now updated its Most Wanted Terrorist status for Al- Zawahiri, with the word "Deceased."

Al-Zawahiri was killed in a precise strike, as the President indicated, on the balcony, of a safe house, with two Hellfire missiles, according to a U.S. official. No American personnel were on the ground, in Kabul, at the time of the strike. No civilian casualties either, according to the President.

The death of Al-Zawahiri comes, a 11 years, after U.S. forces masterfully took out Osama bin Laden, who was hiding, as you recall, in Pakistan, at the time.

Here's what President Biden says about just how long this strike took.


BIDEN: We make it clear again tonight: That no matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.


COATES: Joining me now, to discuss this huge news, is Richard Clarke. He served at the National Security Council, under both Presidents Bush and President Clinton. Remember that he urgently warned the U.S. government, about the Al Qaeda threat, in the months before 9/11.

And New Yorker Staff Writer, Dexter Filkins, who won a Pulitzer Prize, for his outstanding reporting, on Afghanistan, when he was there, working for The New York Times.

Gentlemen, nice to see, both of you, today.

Let me begin with you, if I can, Dexter. Because, I mean, it's pretty unbelievable, to think about, where we are today, 11 years later, at the very least, and nearly 20 years, since 9/11, to now have the death of this top terrorist leader.

You've written about this. You've studied the area. You've written about Afghanistan, in particular. Tell me why this is so significant.

DEXTER FILKINS, SPENT YEARS IN AFGHANISTAN COVERING THE WAR ON TERROR, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: Well, Ayman al-Zawahiri was - he was an old guy. And he was past his prime, and not blowing a lot of things up. But he was still an inspiration, to the group.

I want to say, what really struck me, about this strike, was he was killed - you called it a safe house. It was in - it's in a neighborhood, in Kabul, called Sherpur. That's what's probably the nicest neighborhood in Kabul, big grandiose houses. It's where all the drug dealers live.

And he was in a house that was apparently owned by aides to Sirajuddin Haqqani, who's the Taliban Interior Minister, and a first-class terrorist himself. And so that - there, we have it. I mean, the Taliban, when the United States, agreed to pull out, the Taliban, agreed not to harbor terrorists, in their midst.

And here we are. They have the most wanted man in the world, who was living, in a very nice house. I mean, I worked for The New York Times. The Sherpur house, where he was, was just a few blocks away. And if so, he's right, he's right - they're honored guests. So, I think, so much for the peace agreement!

COATES: Richard, I want to go to you. Because, I mean, the idea that hiding in plain sight, essentially, the idea of him being in Kabul, in particular, tell me the significance, of now having killed, this number two man, of Osama bin Laden?

RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER COUNTER-TERRORISM ADVISER TO PRESIDENTS CLINTON, BUSH, CHAIRMAN, THE MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE: Well, it took us almost 25 years, to do it. He first appeared, on a hit list, authorized by an American president, in 1999. And we're just getting him now.

So, it's good that this current counter-terrorism team was able to do this. But it's remarkable, it took the Great Superpower, almost a quarter of a century, to do this. The significance is--

COATES: What do you make of the reason of that though? If I can - why do you - why do you think it took so long, to do that? Was it then, the lack of Intelligence? Was it a political reason? What is the reason?


CLARKE: Well, at different periods of time, different reasons. I think, during the George W. Bush administration, it was not the priority.

But the significance of this hit is, as Dexter said, it's evidence that the Taliban regime, this is now running Afghanistan, is cooperating with Al Qaeda. The number of Al Qaeda fighters, in Afghanistan, has doubled, in the last year, according to a recent U.N. report.

So, it's clear that Al Qaeda was trying to make a comeback, it's still trying to make a comeback, and that they were doing so with the support of the Interior Minister, Haqqani, who is a known terrorist himself.

So, for all of the pledges that, we've had, from the Taliban that they wouldn't be, like their old selves? Well, that all turns out to be horse buggy. And they are backing a terrorist organization, and we can expect them to continue to.

COATES: Well, on that point, I mean, I see you chuckling, Dexter. I know it's because you obviously agree with what he had to say.

But when you think about it, for the American people, watching, and thinking about the why now, and the idea of these pledges, and these agreements, really being - seems like a fool's errand, at this point, or disingenuous, to say the least, what does this say about the security of Americans, right now?

FILKINS: Well, look, if you go back to the agreement that was signed, with the Taliban, negotiated by the United States, begun - the negotiations, begun by the Trump administration, completed by the Biden Administration? I spent a lot of time, in Doha, with the Taliban, when they were negotiating the agreement.

I don't know how many people, outside of the Trump and the Biden administration actually believed the promises of the Taliban, at the time that they would not harbor terrorists. But I certainly didn't. And it was absolutely apparent to me that they were simply biding time and saying whatever they needed to say, because they knew the United States wanted to leave.

And so, that - that's kind of the place, where we find us now. The United States was able to construct - to conduct a drone strike, today. But we don't have any people, on the ground, or any kind of Intelligence assets, on the ground. And so, we can only hope--

COATES: So, is that promising, in the sense? I mean, is it promising, in the sense that President Biden said that he was going to pull out? Obviously, there's a lot of controversies surrounding that.

But the idea of no civilians, he says, had been harmed, there's no - there's no Military presence, and boots on the ground, and yet they were able to accomplish that? Is that validating, in a way, what President Biden sought to do? Or is this an indication, to something far more concerning?

FILKINS: Well, it's validating, for now. But let's see. Let's see. I mean, it's hard to - I mean, Richard knows this far better than I do. It's hard to run an Intelligence network, if you don't have anyone on the ground.

COATES: Well, Richard, when you think about that notion? I mean, you have spoken, about these issues, been very outspoken about it, in the concerns, even before 9/11, I might add. I wonder, when you look at this, is this, essentially, the idea of another person will be able to rise up, in the ranks?

There may have been the elimination of this one person. But if it's, as you both were describing, the idea of these agreements, that really were not really truly agreements, aren't going to be abided by, the idea of it happening, in Kabul, in particular, are you concerned about the idea of somebody else being able to just step into the role, right now?

CLARKE: I'm more concerned about the hundreds, if not thousands, of Al Qaeda terrorists, scattered around, in small camps, throughout Afghanistan. It's one thing, to find the leader. You can usually do that with a lot of effort, and you can usually be able to take him out, at some point. But how do you take out 1,200, 2,400 terrorists, who're scattered around, in small groups, whose names we don't know? Because we don't have people there, on the ground.

We should have kept a small counter-terrorist force, in Afghanistan. And we didn't. Some of us said if you pulled out that there would be a recrudescence, of the terrorist groups. That's happened.

And it's also, by the way, happening, in Syria, where ISIS detainees, and there are tens of thousands, are still organized. They're in camps. They're under guard, but they're still there, too.

So, the story, here, on counter-terrorism, is it's not 1990s news. It's not over. It's never over. You cannot take your eye off the ball. And if you don't continue to do, what the Biden administration did, over the weekend, they will come for us.

COATES: Continue to do, in terms of identifying other known terrorists, and taking them out, as well? You're saying there's an existing list that must be marched through?

CLARKE: We have to do everything we can, including taking out leadership. And that's not all we can do.


We have to have a robust program. And it can't just be a program of violence. It has to be a program of counter-terrorism ideology, as well. Ideology is the way you win this, in the long run. And this is a long game.

COATES: Dexter Filkins, Richard Clarke, thank you both so much.

FILKINS: Thank you.

COATES: The killing of Al-Zawahiri, a big victory, for President Biden and, frankly, at a time of political turmoil. So, what could this mean, not only for him, but also his party, about 99 days, ahead of the midterms? Politics always finds a way back into the conversation.

We'll be right back.



COATES: While we're still learning details, about the U.S. Military strike that killed the most wanted terrorist, in the world? We know these type of strikes can actually help a president's popularity, as odd as that sounds, to even say and think about.

Polling in 2011, for example, saw a majority of Americans, gave Donald Trump credit, for the death of ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And Obama, he saw a six-point bump, in approval, after the death of Osama bin Laden.

We'll see what the death of Al-Zawahiri does, for Biden's numbers. But it comes amid a string of good news, for the President, between falling gas prices, a bipartisan win, to boost production of semiconductors, and now an apparent deal, on the Senate, to fight climate change, and lower drug prices, and forced corporations, to pay higher taxes.

Let's talk about it now, with the fabulous guests that we have today. I'm joined now by CNN Political Commentator, and Spectrum News Political Anchor, Errol Louis. CNN Commentator, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. And, CNN Commentator, and Co-Founder of The Dispatch, Jonah Goldberg.

I felt the politics part, was redundant. You're all commentators, on everything you'll talk about, everything you can talk about today.

I have to ask, first of all, there's kind of an ick factor, when I say, the idea of "How will this boost approval ratings?" I mean, we're talking about it's still a loss of life, albeit one, which is a terrorist.

But we do gauge and judge this, in this way, do we not, the idea of what will this do, because he's the Commander-in-Chief? Will this give him kind of a rally-around-the-flag sort of moment?


COATES: What do you think?

GOLDBERG: The rallying around the president phenomena is real, exists in polling. One might say too soon. But here we are. And I think that's sort of the world we live in these days.

I suspect that it'll be hard to disaggregate from all the others. So, this is the best week, 10 days that of the Biden presidency, arguably, just in terms of the wins that he's racked up. So, it'd be probably hard to disentangle this--


GOLDBERG: --from all those other things. There are a lot of like legitimate questions, still to be asked, about why was the Head of Al Qaeda welcomed to live in downtown Kabul, for example?

COATES: Yes. And we called it a safe house. And one of our guests said, "No, no, no. We're not thinking like simple"--




COATES: It wasn't like in the oblivion. GOLDBERG: Right.

COATES: They're talking about, in the heart of an area, a well-to-do area. I mean, you're right about the, it feels too soon. And yet, this is how politics works, right? The idea of the Polercoaster, number one, also the Commander-in-Chief factor. But there is still that moment of, is that how we ought to be judging things?

DR. ABDUL EL-SAYED, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Laura, to your point, the moral side of things, we should not aspire to live in a society, where we celebrate, or give a president, a bump of the polls, for the loss of any life. And I do think that there's - it's worth thinking about that, for a moment.

And, at the same time, one of the moments, where President Biden's presidency started to go south, was the pull-out of Afghanistan.

COATES: That's true.

EL-SAYED: And the worry that people had was that this was going to make Americans less safe, considering the past 20 years. I - whether or not that's founded on any basis? Who knows! But this does feel like he's going back and trying to correct that.

The other part of this is that it does come on a week, maybe two weeks of momentum, whether it's the Inflation Reduction Act, or it's the fact that, we're seeing some pickup, in terms of where we think things are going to go, in the midterms. And so, building on that momentum, is really important.

LOUIS: The squeamishness is, I think, appropriate, right? But warriors make war. I mean, this is the business, right?


LOUIS: This is what you have to do, as Commander-in-Chief. And, I mean, President Eisenhower, helped save the world, for Western democracy, and was elevated to the presidency, as a result.

I thought it was really telling, during his address that the President talked not just about 9/11, but talked about the USS Cole, talked about the attacks, on the embassies, in Kenya and in Tanzania, making clear that this is part of a long, multi-administration. Those things happened, during the Clinton administration.

This is a longtime project, of the United States, to defend our borders, to defend our people, to take the war, to those, who had attacked us.


LOUIS: And, I think, we should be grateful that it did happen. Politics aside--

COATES: But I must say--

LOUIS: --will it benefit him or not? Who knows?

COATES: I mean, I have to say, maybe it's just me, but I'm a little concerned that this happened now. Not because I don't think the President did wrong, or anything. But the idea of did you feel that we were unsafe enough to have - I mean, Osama bin Laden was that overarching looming threat.

When I hear about somebody being taken out, in this manner? My immediate concern goes to where we endangered national security wise, number one. Are we now in danger yet again, given the pull-out, from Afghanistan, given the fact that there are obviously other issues domestically happening, shall we say, domestic and foreign terrorists? We've seen already that play out.

I mean, does that concern you now? Will that hit home for people, talking about national security?

GOLDBERG: Look, personally, I think, Zawahiri needed to go. I mean, like, this is a guy, going back to the Cole, he has a lot of American blood, on his hands.

COATES: Of course.


GOLDBERG: And so, if they have the opportunity, you take it. Yes, people can politically second-guess it. They can question the timing. They did that with every president that we've had, about questioning convenient timing, and all of that.

And that's one of the reason, why you have to ask questions, is it like, did we know he was there for a long time? And then, he picked this time or not? I give him the benefit of the doubt. I think they had the opportunity, he took it.

COATES: Why don't question his time? I mean, I don't question the idea of that it was calculated, politically.

I guess, my point is, does this now raise concerns that Americans now have about national security, more broadly, as opposed to the ideas of it was the economy, and overarchingly, it's obviously the Pandemic. It's things, especially with jobs, and with other creations.

The fact that this has now happened, is this now make people say, "Hold on! Well, we are unsafe, in the first place?"

EL-SAYED: Laura, the worry I have with this is that the war on terror has been a drum that every president can go back to, and beat anytime things get tough. And I hate to see this president, who closed the door, on the war on terror, go back and beat the War on Terror drum.

Because, you're right, it does create this psychology of "Well, what's lurking around the next corner? Is the President keeping me safe?" And the only person you can turn to is the president.

And so, I just worry that we are imputing, that same psychology, of the war on terror. And the downside of that psychology is that it has created, it has transmuted - we saw John Bolton, talking to one of your colleagues, just a couple weeks ago, talking about all the coups d'etat that he helped to plan.

COATES: Yes. That was a bizarre moment, I have to tell you.


COATES: I mean, really, I was like, "Wait, we're going to overlook that?"

LOUIS: Yes, yes, yes.

COATES: "What coups are his planning (ph)?"

LOUIS: Yes, yes.

COATES: Let's go back, for a second, Jake. Go ahead.

EL-SAYED: But the fact is, is that we had an attempted coup d'etat, here, in the United States.

And so, I worry about what the long-term consequences, of continuing to go back to this war on terror psychology that "You are not safe. You are - you have to be worried that there is something lurking, right there," and what that means for our own independence (ph).

COATES: Yet if you want to - if you want to unite a country, I mean, the sad reality is, when the Us versus Thems?

EL-SAYED: Yes, that'll do it.

COATES: That seems to work.

LOUIS: Well look, something we really do need to know, is a lot more details, about why was he hanging out, in downtown Kabul?

Well, what did the Taliban do? Did they provide any Intelligence, maybe quietly? Did they not know about this? Do we now have to have a different kind of a conversation with them? What does this mean, diplomatically? There are a lot of really important questions here.

And so, for the President to, number one, take action? Yes, they have this Intelligence. Imagine what a scandal, it would be, if they knew where he was, and failed to take action? That would take us all the way back to the USS Cole, right?

COATES: Well they had a little like model home. They've known, for some time, in preparation. You mean outside the preparatory period, right?

LOUIS: Sure. But they - I think, they need, now, to really be transparent, and level, with the American people, about what is going on, in Afghanistan, now, like - because you raised - you're raising exactly the right question. Is there some growing threat, out there? Did our withdrawal sort of open the door, to some real problems? Or do we have maybe a quiet understanding with the Taliban leadership?

COATES: Gentlemen, Errol wants transparency, in Washington, D.C.!

LOUIS: Just a little!

COATES: A tear came to my eye!

LOUIS: Just a little!

COATES: It came - didn't quite do like the one Denzel tear, down my face. But it's coming!

And we'll stick around. I'll come right back to you as well. Stick with us.

Ahead, our tribute, to NBA legend, and civil rights activist, Bill Russell, who passed away, yesterday, at the age of 88, a remarkable trailblazer, who did what was unpopular, at great personal risk.

And we'll ask who, is the Bill Russell, of today, when we come back.



COATES: So, what if I told you that there was a time, when you could stand up, for what you believe in, no matter the personal or professional consequences, and not become a political pariah, and still be thought of, as a team player, and still win in the end? I mean, win repeatedly? And say, you vaguely saw that somewhere, in a movie, at one point in time, only it was real, and the man who did it was larger than life.

At 6 foot 10, Bill Russell was a man, to certainly look up to. But he wasn't just a basketball player. He would tell you that he was a man that played basketball, but a man, a human being, first, not more worried about playing games, or winning, or not losing his fan base, than doing what was right.

But as much as his 11 championships, a 11, mind you, with the Boston Celtics, and the historic marker of being the first Black Head Coach of, I think, any major team, before he was inducted, into the Hall of Fame.

Bill Russell was a man, who defended Muhammad Ali's refusal to be drafted. While he was Red Auerbach's dream player, he would go on to march on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He would fit in the very first row, watching Dr. Martin Luther King's, "I Have a Dream" speech.

When two Black teammates were refused service, at a hotel coffee shop, he refused to sit back and take it.


BILL RUSSELL, FORMER NBA CHAMPION & CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: I told Red we were leaving. I said it was because it was important to me that everybody, everywhere, knows that the Black players are deciding they'll stand up for themselves.


COATES: See, he knew the power of sports, to shine a spotlight, even in the areas, where some wanted us to look away. And he would spend his life, standing up, for those that he saw as doing the right thing.

Now, his stardom did not inoculate him from racism. It didn't shield him from criticism, by any stretch of the imagination. But his fight for equality, here on Earth, would earn him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

And, in another arena, not on Earth, saw the possibility of dignified treatment, of Black women, in a world, where no man has gone before.


Nichelle Nichols, one of the first Black women, cast as a main character, on television, depicted not as a stereotype, but, I think, you know, her as Lieutenant Uhura. That's before we even get to her work, recruiting women of color, into the space program.

And it's an impact that may have been cut short, if not for a chance encounter, with somebody, well, who Bill Russell also knew.


NICHELLE NICHOLS, TRAILBLAZING 'STAR TREK' ACTRESS: The organizer came over and said, "Ms. Nichols, How are you?" and blah, blah, da. And he said, "Listen? There's someone here, who said he is your biggest fan." And he's looking chirpy, you know? And he said, "And he's desperate to meet you."

"Dr. Martin Luther King, my leader, is walking toward me, at not 10 feet away, with a beautiful smile, on his face."

I said, "Well, I'm leaving Star Trek." He said, "You cannot."

He said, "For the first time, on television, we will be seen as we should be seen, every day, as intelligent, quality beautiful people, who can sing dance, and act, but who can go into space."


COATES: Don't ever wonder why I'm a Trekkie, people!

But she herself would find herself, in controversy, when she was a part of that kiss, that first interracial kiss, on television. Even science fiction would not shield her, from criticism, there, nor Captain Kirk. But she used her platform, to illustrate what could be, and did so, unapologetically. Now, maybe one of the reasons this feels so foreign to us, now, is because of how we think about politics, these days. Where are those, on the national stage, willing to do what is right, even in the face of political backlash? Yes, there are some.

But are we past the point, where we can see past the team they play for, to acknowledge one simple truth? That right is right and wrong is wrong? Is there any world here or beyond where we can expect this to happen? I mean, look at what's in the news, when it all becomes about one side against the other.

Where are the heroes that can make us see past our political spectrum? Maybe we are those people. And I've heard names recently like Mike Pence, and Liz Cheney, and Cassidy Hutchinson, thrown out, as our modern-day heroes. And I wonder if you think that they are.

And after all, the Right attacks them as traitors, while the Left insists on a purity that may no longer be reasonable? How dare you compliment or dare to compartmentalize? It's either all bad, or all good.

Millions of people watched Miss Nichols fly through fictional space, under the banner of Starfleet. Russell wore the green and white of the Boston Celtics. But their heroism was not defined by the uniforms they wore.

So, as we mark their passing, I'm wondering, can we see past the Red, or the Blue, or the R, or the D, and find any modern heroes, who simply can say "Right is right?"

Much more in a moment. Thoughts are on the table, on Russell. And, by the way, who is the Russell of today, when CNN TONIGHT continues. By the way, I'm obviously Uhura! So that's already settled! Thank you.

We'll be right back.



COATES: We've lost two people, this weekend, whose lives serve, as a reminder, of what we're missing, maybe in our national conversation, people who just do what's right, because it's right, and reflect maybe our wildest fantasies, of what humankind can actually accomplish.

Errol, Abdul, and Jonah, the question I have for you all today, is who is today's Bill Russell? I don't mean just a basketball player. Not that anyone's just. Obviously, I'm 5 foot 3. I'm a little bit jaded. I'm jealous of a 5-foot - a 6 foot 10 person.

But the question is who is that notion of a Bill Russell that essentially is unapologetically standing up, but not getting creamed for it, not vilified, and made into a pariah. Do we even have that person any longer?

EL-SAYED: So, I want to offer a couple folks. But first, I want to say that, in their time, they didn't have Twitter. And unfortunately, what feeds these algorithms, is the ability to create all or nothing, and then - and then dissect us, into camps, around all or nothing.

COATES: The Us versus Thems?

EL-SAYED: The Us versus Thems, and then they're Thems, or - and so, you find yourself, on both sides.

The other piece of that is that a lot of these folks, especially in politics, even at that time, never really achieved hero status, until well after their time. And so, it's hard, right? Because what makes them heroes is they stood up against criticism, right? There was criticism in their time, even with Nichelle Nichols. And we talked about that.

But, to me, I'd like to raise up two folks, Serena Williams, and I would say similar path-breaking athlete. And what doesn't get talked about is her work, on maternal mortality, particularly Black maternal mortality, which is three to four times higher than White maternal mortality.

And it came after her, own experience, not being diagnosed, with what could have been a lethal pulmonary embolus, when she was delivering. And so, she's done so much work both, as an advocate, and also with her incredible means, to be able to take on this issue.

And then another is Jose Andres, someone who made his mark, as a restaurateur, and then realized that he had an opportunity, not just to feed patrons, with the money, to eat, at his restaurants, but to feed the world. And he's been doing that.

And so, we have those people. I think, to ask for them to be in our politics, in this particular moment, of polarization, is a little tough. And I do hope that, 30 years from now, we can look back, at this moment, and say, "Here were the folks, who really stood up. Here were the heroes, in our politics."

COATES: It's a great thought, the idea of, as you think about it, how often that we all heard the phrase that "History will judge us. How will history view you?"


And I often wonder sometimes about whether that has any persuasive value, to people, especially in politics, the idea of - because it really - it means you have to have shame, right? That "I'm going to be so embarrassed and scared that I might be judged badly, one day?"


COATES: That "I'm not going to do today what I want to do?"

But I don't think that shame is that motivating galvanizing factor, for people, when they think about, as "How can I become that next great hero?"

LOUIS: Well, shame is the stick. But you have to keep in mind, the carrot that Bill Russell could never have imagined.

These multi-year $100 million contracts, where the players, who might even consider, stepping out on a limb, on any issue, whether it's something like, maternal mortality, or trying to sort of champion a good cause, or God forbid, get involved, in something that might be controversial, and cost them some - cause them some problems, to turn down $100 million, $200 million, to turn down these multi-year contracts?

Some of these are kids who either didn't finish, or never really went to college? It becomes a very different kind of an equation. And it's terrible to say it.

But one wonders, if you put it out there, would Bill Russell have been the same, you know? I mean, first of all, a magnificent player in a way, that's just not even, you know, even Michael Jordan never won eight championships in a row. I mean, they dominated, all of sports, really--


LOUIS: --for an entire decade, unheard of, almost inconceivable, at this point. But I - my sense is that that is what's keeping so many really talented cultural figures, especially in sports, from taking the chance. There's just a lot more at stake.

GOLDBERG: But I also - I think your point was a good one that there's a - there's a little bit of the sort of the nostalgia problem, here. And we have this gauzy memory, of these people. I mean, Bill Russell paid a price, for the things, he did.

COATES: He did.

GOLDBERG: Arthur Ashe paid a price, Jackie Robinson, lots of people. And it's a sign of their success that we think back on it, and say, these are sort of cultural Mount Rushmore type figures.

And it's difficult to know, in the moment, who those kinds of people are, in part, because - and I think, the Twitter point, is a really important one, or the social media point. The incentive structure we have, today, is it values being performative, over having integrity.

It value - it rewards people, for how many - negative attention is better than no attention. We saw that, in the White House, for four years. We see that in all sorts of other places. And if you can get a big following and if you can get the right people, to hate you? That helps you.

And so, people pick fights, in an era of negative polarization, to attract allies, to their side, because they're - Ted Cruz does this, AOC does this, lots of politicians do this. And, I think, one of the problems that we get is that we have - it's very difficult to ask politicians, to be heroes, when the incentive structure says, "We want them to be celebrities and performers."

COATES: Well, also the idea of what a hero is? I mean, let's be real here. We're calling people heroes, who follow the law, right? It's like that Chris Rock episode, or the - where he's talking about, "I'm a good father. I take care of my kids," you're supposed to do that.


COATES: I mean, what do you mean, like?

LOUIS: Right.

COATES: So, you didn't have the backing, in the law, to try to undermine the election. You weren't supposed to overturn it. You were called to testify, in front of Congress.

LOUIS: You showed up.

COATES: You're supposed to do that.


COATES: You showed up, right? I mean, these are the - these moment - or Congresswoman Liz Cheney, I'm listening to what the Wyoming voters have had to say about her.

And this is somebody, what did she do? Getting this heroic - hero title, the heroine, was the idea of "The election was fair." I mean, she's a very - a voter, who voted, in line with Trump policies, more often than not.

Hear what the voter had to say about it though.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Look what - how she's done Trump?

She's supposed to be supporting him. She's a Republican, for crying out loud.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I find her work on the January 6th committee, just repulsive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She has been an embarrassment. It's a witch-hunt.


EL-SAYED: The only response to "She's a Republican," is "She's an American." And, in America, we have a democracy that one has to uphold, because, well, all of them took an oath to it.

To the point, about sports, though, for a second, right? You talked about putting those multimillion dollars on the line. That's exactly what Colin Kaepernick did.


EL-SAYED: When he decided to take a knee. And he lost his opportunity, to continue to play football. He was blackballed from the NFL. And he took a stand on an issue that the world came around on, after the murder of George Floyd.

LOUIS: That's right.

EL-SAYED: And so, I would argue that he is a hero. Now, here's the thing. He's been vilified, on the Right. And the reality of it is that, I think, 30 years from now, I think, history will smile kindly, on him, and what he did, and what he stood for.

But he's not necessarily getting the praise, in this moment. And he put it on the line. Same with Ali, right? Ali had the opportunity to come back. That wasn't the case, for Kaepernick. At least, it doesn't look like that.

But heroism takes a cost. It's not something that you get to just do, and then go back home and, you kind of wake up the next morning. It's something that really, really takes a cost.

LOUIS: The Kaepernick example is perfect, I think, because it gives people a sense, I think, a taste of what it was really like, to be Muhammad Ali, when you're fighting against the draft board.

EL-SAYED: Yes, right.

LOUIS: Or to be Martin Luther King, for that matter, you know, I mean?

COATES: Or the Olympians, on the podium, who held up their fists?

LOUIS: That's right.


COATES: They were not revered in time. They often speak about, how badly they were treated, in those moments. But you're on - I mean, you're on to something, the idea of how history judges, and where the here and now comes into play.

I will note though, one of the sort of most memorable Instagram posts that I've seen was of Bill Russell, and he was kneeling, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, around his neck, praising the athletes that dare to take a knee, like the Kaepernicks, like the Milwaukee Bucks, as well.

Stay with us, everyone. We'll be right back.

And ahead, we unpack that video apology, from actor, Will Smith, to comedian, Chris Rock. See, I said Chris Rock's name. And now, we're going to talk about it as well. After that stunning slap, at the Oscars, as the world waits to find out what Rock thought about it, we'll take it around the table, for our own analysis, next.


COATES: All right, the NFL has another player controversy, on its hands. Fans are watching to see what Roger Goodell is going to do about it. Cleveland Browns quarterback, Deshaun Watson, he's been accused of sexual misconduct, by 24 women. He has, of course, settled with 23 of them, in different lawsuits, while repeatedly denying any of the allegations.


The NFL conducted its own investigation, and an independent officer gave Watson, a six-game suspension. Six-game suspension!

But with Watson, and the NFL Players Association said there will - it will not appeal the ruling. But the NFL Commissioner has the final say. The NFL had originally asked, for a full season suspension. So what just what will Roger Goodell do now?

Back with me, Errol Louis, Abdul El-Sayed, and Jonah Goldberg.

Errol, I got to ask you, what's your take on this? Because, I feel like, and I'm being sarcastic, I feel like there's not a whole lot of consistency, in the disciplinary actions, of the NFL. Am I wrong?

LOUIS: Well, unfortunately, you are somewhat right, to tell you the truth. I mean, if you look through the document, what they did was, go back, as a court might do, and look back at what they've assigned, as punishments, in the past. And they said, "Well, under the circumstances, six games is about what we usually do, in these kinds of cases."

COATES: Non-violent, they called it.

LOUIS: Right. They called it non-violent. Now, that is the opposite of leadership. That is the opposite of progress. That is the definition of the status quo. "Let's not change anything. This is what we usually do. And so, we'll do it one more time."

COATES: But why do something different?

LOUIS: Well, you do something different, because this abhorrent behavior, will never stop, unless you really punish it. And so, the idea of maybe missing a season, or imposing an actual serious financial fine, which is hard to do, when somebody's got a quarter of a billion dollar deal?

COATES: Which they gave him, after the allegations were already out there.

LOUIS: Structured--

COATES: I just want to put that out there.

LOUIS: Structured it in a way that he'd--

COATES: Right?

LOUIS: --get a whole bunch of money, no matter what, right? But it--

COATES: I want his lawyer!


LOUIS: It won't - it won't change, until it changes. And they've got to make some changes. And, I think, everyone watching this? I think the NFL, which is, in fact, susceptible, to public pressure. We'll wait to hear from the fans, the advertisers, the sponsors, the players and everybody else.

And so, anybody who has an opinion about this ought to weigh in right now. Because they've made clear, they're not going to change anything, unless they have to.

EL-SAYED: To just weigh in? I mean, we just talked about Colin Kaepernick. Man took a knee, in protest of Police violence, against Black people, got drummed out of the league.

Deshaun Watson sexually violated 26--

COATES: Allegedly.

EL-SAYED: --allegedly sexually violated 26 women. 26 women! And he's going to sit for six games!

And the thing about it is the NFL is going to have their cake and eat it too. You're going to get a sternly-worded angry comment, from Goodell. But they know how they make their money. They make their money because people like Deshaun Watson, take the field. And so, it's in every incentive that they have to keep him on there.

And so, I think, they've just been handed this situation. They're going to be very, very angry about it. But, in the end, they're going to say, "Justice was done, and Deshaun Watson is going to play."

COATES: There's that part of it, though, too, and I wonder, what you think about this, is the idea of these aren't criminal prosecutions. And you know I'm a prosecutor. And I think about the ideas of due process.

And I hear a lot of the commentary people make about the court of public opinion, the MeToo movement, the idea of cancel culture. All gets conflated into one conversation, around, "Why should you take everything away from him, if nothing's been proven in a court room, a court of law?"

GOLDBERG: Yes, I mean, look, I mean, there are things that you could do that wouldn't violate the law that would cost you your job at CNN, right? There are things--

COATES: There's are whole - there's a long list.

GOLDBERG: There's a very long list, right?

COATES: About things that one could do.

GOLDBERG: And even some of those things, you deserve, to lose your job. Not all of them, because, you know? But anyway, there's - institutions have a fiduciary obligation, to protect the long-term integrity, and name, and reputation, of their institutions.

And that we have a sort of a tragedy of the commons sort of way, if we think about this stuff, when it comes to these kinds of institutions. And I do think it's worth not letting the player's union off the hook, here.


GOLDBERG: This feels like very much a winking, nodding. NFL will get a little more grief than the Players union. But the players union was in on this.

For critics, of Police unions, it's the same sort of principle, here. Police unions, I understand they have to protect cops, regardless of what the accusations are. But sometimes, those defenses are less defensible than others. And this is one of those cases.

EL-SAYED: You also have to appreciate just the fact that the victims here are some of the most disempowered people, in our society, predominantly women of color, whose businesses, rely on their good name.

And so, Deshaun Watson, who's got $250 million, $230 million, whatever it is, he can pay every single one of them, a million dollars, and then he still gets to keep $204 million. And, in the end, they all go away. And so, this is not going to get proven in the court of law, because it's in no one's incentive, to have that happen.

And so, given the fact that all of us, the NFL exists, because all of us tune in to watch it? I think you're right, Errol, we have to raise our voices, and decide that we are not going to watch this, and have to sit there, and realize that all of this money, is being paid, and spent, on behalf of someone, who has systematically abused, low-income women of color.


COATES: You know what we have sat and watched? The Oscars. We know about Hollywood, and money and making the world go round.

EL-SAYED: Fully Will Smith (ph).

COATES: I know - I mean, I'd tell you. We're going to go real quick here. I want a kind of the lightning round, of your thoughts, here. When you saw the apology, from Will Smith, did you go "That's the ticket!" Or were you like, "Was that March 2022? Why now?" Real quick.

LOUIS: Why now? Why this crappy video that nobody asked for? I - my impression was--

COATES: Actually, how do you feel about it?

LOUIS: My impression was he's a pretty good actor, you know? And so he's wrestling out loud with the idea that "How could I have done something wrong, when I know that I'm not a piece of crap?" And it's kind of like, well, let's ask that question a little bit differently. What - why would somebody do that, if they weren't a piece of crap, which is the way I think most of the world thinks about it.

EL-SAYED: Stale prints of fresh air but - stale - sorry.

COATES: Oh man! It was so close! I was with you. I was like "Oh, he's going to get it."

EL-SAYED: Yes, I was going to nail it, but missed it.


COATES: --are you going to - you were going to do it.

EL-SAYED: All this--

COATES: Oh, man!

EL-SAYED: Yes. I looked up to Will Smith, when I was a young man, right? He showed us a certain way of being. And to see him continue to try and wrestle with this, in a way that is too cute by half, is so frustrating.

COATES: Well, we'll see if others agree. I mean, nobody asked me!

Errol Louis, Abdul El-Sayed, Jonah Goldberg, thank you so much.

We'll be right back.


COATES: That's it for us, tonight.

"DON LEMON TONIGHT" starts right now, with, of course, Don Lemon.

Hey, Don Lemon?