In the history of bad business decisions, the NFL’s choice to back sideline protestors who kneel during the national anthem should rank right up there NBC and CBS passing on Monday Night Football in 1970 and handing that gold-mine of a franchise to ABC. But since this most recent blunder is so obvious, you must wonder why they think it makes sense.
The downsides are obvious: angry fans, declining ratings, and destroying decades of good will that built professional football into America’s Game. Most industries facing a public relations meltdown like this would go into immediate crisis mode and find a way to placate their enraged customers. But the NFL has yet to even acknowledge the problem, let alone propose means of fixing it.
The kneelers are protesting what they see as the innate social injustice and racial inequality in the United States. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started it all, explained last year that he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He added that “there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” referring to law enforcement.
Of course, there are other ways to protest that do not involve showing disrespect to our national emblems. Martin Luther King and his followers made some of the same points by marching in Selma with the American flag while singing the Star Spangled Banner. Players could use some of their personal millions to establish foundations or engage in other positive measures to improve conditions in the country. Taking a knee is cheap; making a difference requires a little more thought and effort.
We know why the players are kneeling, but why is the NFL encouraging it? Statements from team management give no clue. New England Patriots CEO and Chairman Robert Kraft issued an unintentionally ironic statement saying “there is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and, unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics.” So why insert politics into sports? Chicago Bears Chairman George McCaskey said his team is proud “to bring peace and unity together through football.” Is this what peace and unity looks like? Teams have also said they are standing up for free speech, which is an absurd point since businesses have a right to regulate employee speech on-the-job, as the NFL has done in the past with players espousing other causes.
Another cop-out is the attempt to make this all about Donald Trump. The president weighed in on the issue over the last week with a series of bold statements and tweets leaving now doubt that he feels the players are insulting the country and should be fired. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that President Trump’s comments were “divisive” and show “an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL.” He added that “the NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.” Again, does Mr. Goodell really think he is helping create a sense of unity?
If the NFL has a strategy for getting out of this situation it is not apparent. The Pittsburg Steelers tried to avoid the issue by staying in the tunnel while the anthem played, but were booed when they emerged. On the other hand, Steelers offensive tackle and veteran Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva broke ranks and saluted the flag, and his jersey became an overnight best seller. Will the virtue-signaling NFL leadership take the hint?
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reacted with one of the most reasonable proposals heard lately, saying he completely supports “the call for social change and the pursuit of true equality” and that his team should stand for the national anthem to show “solidarity as a nation, that we stand united in respect for the people on the front lines protecting our freedom and keeping us safe. God bless those men and women.”
It remains to be seen if Roethlisberger’s idea catches on. If not, where does it end? Will kneeling for the anthem become a stale pre-game ritual, continuing to anger fans but losing impact from overuse? Will the NFL dedicate a month to social activism, as some players have proposed? And what happens when players bring other causes to the sidelines, like pro-life, support the troops, or honoring law enforcement? What happens to those First Amendment arguments then?
The NFL desperately needs a face-saving way to make this issue go away. But it starts with awareness that they have a problem, which may be too much for the leadership to admit. Maybe when they see their bottom line shrinking it will get their attention.
James S. Robbins is the author of Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity.
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