To Kneel or Not to Kneel
Despite all the buzz surrounding the NBA Playoffs, the NFL once again managed to steal the spotlight yesterday with the announcement of a national anthem policy.
Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that NFL owners had voted to require all league officials and players on the field to “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.” Players who don’t want to stand for the anthem can stay in the locker room until after it ends. Those who violate the edict will be subject to discipline or a fine.
The vote was 31-0, with San Francisco 49ers’ owner Jed York abstaining.
Hailing this decision, president Donald Trump said that athletes who don’t stand for the anthem “shouldn’t be playing. Maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.”
The NFL’s action, and Trump’s comments, will no doubt re-ignite a controversy that started two years ago when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the playing of the anthem to protest police brutality and racism in America. A number of other players around the league joined in, prompting Trump to advise NFL owners to fire players who don’t stand (“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.”)
Many fans sided with the president, boycotting games, turning off their TV sets.
NFL owners originally showed solidarity with the protesting players, but as the crowds thinned and the TV ratings slid, they caved to presidential pressure.
And financial pressure.
To understand yesterday’s decision, you must understand that all that really matters to Roger Goodell and the NFL owners is money. Profits are far, far more important than player safety, patriotism or police brutality.
The NFL is a $13 billion business, thanks to astronomical TV rights fees, sold out stadiums, and sponsorship deals. If that business is threatened, players’ rights and social justice be damned.
Reaction to yesterday’s announcement was mixed. Some of the players, like Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long, called out the owners.
“This is fear of a diminished bottom line,” Long said. “This is not patriotism. Don’t get it confused. These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it.”
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, in the middle of a hotly contested series with Houston, took time to criticize the NFL.
“They’re basically trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism, scaring people," Kerr said. "It’s idiotic.”
Some pundits, including the LA Times' Bill Plaschke, think yesterday’s decision was a fair compromise.
“Remove the rhetoric, examine the bottom line and understand that this divisive issue is actually about the one simple thing that everyone understands: It’s all business,” Plaschke wrote. “The NFL is not asking anyone to cover up their conscience. The NFL is just saying ‘don’t protest before our games, in our stadiums, while being paid by us, because consumers aren’t buying it.’”
Unfortunately, the suits in the NFL office weren’t about to admit that the almighty dollar drove this decision. So they cloaked it in the guise of patriotism, which I find both disingenuous and distasteful.
In 40-plus years in this business, I’ve interacted with hundreds of players, coaches, school administrators, league officials, and team owners. I’ve dealt with issues ranging from recruiting violations and under-the-table payments to women’s rights and immigration.
It’s clear from the players and ex-players I’ve talked to that kneeling during the anthem was never intended to disrespect the flag, the anthem, or our military. It was a protest against police brutality and racial inequality.
The players were using their most powerful platform to call attention to social injustice, but the president turned the national debate into one about patriotism, respect for the flag, and respect for the military.
It’s ironic that one of the most important things our military has fought to preserve is freedom of speech.
And that freedom of speech is now being denied to NFL players.