Honk if you were kind of caught off guard by Wednesday’s news that National Football League owners decided, unanimously, to fine any team whose players did not stand for the national anthem at the beginning of games. That means kneeling is out.
To quote NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: “… all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.”
To players who want to kneel in protest (or raise a fist or link arms or do some other kind of gesture), this means, “If you do that on the field, we will take money away from you.”
In other words: Don’t demonstrate downtown, I have shopping to do. Don’t demonstrate at a sporting event because you take away from my entertainment. Why can’t you all just shut up and dribble?
And with the apparent collusion to keep Colin Kaepernick, the talented former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, out of the NFL combined with teams asking free agents if they will stand during the anthem, another message is being delivered. Be thankful you are making all that money — you play a game for a living. If we didn’t allow you to be making this money, you would be out there with the rest of “them.”
Apropos is the fact this is all playing out the same week that news breaks about Sterling Brown, a black NBA player, being abused and tased by officers of the Milwaukee Police Department. This is the kind of incident that started the player protests. The NFL didn’t mention the incident in any of its statements.
How did we get here — again?
Because when we left this issue last October, we seemed to be making some progress.
The discussion had increasingly returned to the original reason for the anthem protests — calling attention to racial injustice and a rash of police shootings of unarmed black men. It was never a protest against the American flag or the national anthem. It was a protest about a continuing, tragic failure to live up to American ideals.
NFL owners held talks with representatives of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to discuss how to deal with issues surrounding the ongoing player protests during the national anthem before the start of games.
And after a meeting of 11 team owners and 13 players in New York City, the NFL said it was a “productive” session and that both sides would continue to work together to find a way forward. It didn’t sound like any formal decisions had been made over protests, but the league had already said it would like to move past protesting during the anthem and find a way to promote players’ work in their respective communities.
There was even talk of Kaepernick, credited — or blamed — for starting this movement toward awareness, possibly getting a tryout with a couple of NFL teams.
Fast-forward to last week, and oh what a difference four months and a reported 10 percent drop in TV audience makes.
Faced with the fan backlash fueled by none other than President Donald Trump, NFL owners fumbled by almost every measure. Fans who let the politically opportunistic Trump whip them into a lather over a made-up issue will likely see the owners as wimping out by allowing the players to stay in the locker room while the anthem is played. Players, if they hadn’t viewed owners as the enemy before, will see this as a line in the sand. And the general public is quite frankly bemused and confused over why this issue is taking up precious bandwidth.
Remember, NFL owners created this problem when they made a business decision to swap salutes for cash as a marketing gimmick. A 2015 joint oversight report commissioned by Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain found that the Pentagon had paid the NFL nearly $7 million for salutes, color guards, anthems and more before and during games. The Pentagon and the NFL both say they’ve cut it out since.
But don’t kid yourself. Having dug themselves into a patriotic hole, Wednesday’s decision by the owners is still about a business transaction. That’s why the agreed-upon rule was made without consulting the NFLPA. There’s no way the players would have consented to what they most certainly view as a suppression of freedom of speech.
“Those who are not comfortable standing for the anthem have the right to stay off the field,” Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II told The Washington Post after Wednesday’s meeting. “We’re not forcing anybody to stand who doesn’t feel that that’s within the way they feel about particular subjects. But those that are on the field are going to be asked to stand. We’ve listened to a lot of different viewpoints, including our fans, over the last year. I think this policy is meant to come out at a place where we’re respecting everybody’s point of view on this as best we could.”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last season that he would bench any player who refused to stand for the anthem. Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said in March that NFL playing fields are not places for political statements. And Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown reportedly told free-agent safety Eric Reid this off-season that he planned to require Bengals players to stand for the anthem.
NFL owners say they just wanted to “take the politics out of football.” Really?
They gave up being political a long time ago. Again, witness the show of military aircraft flying overhead and flags streaming across the field. The NFL, whether it intended to or not, has helped turn patriotism into a weapon used to bludgeon anyone who don’t share your political ideology.
Think about what the NFL means when it says the new policy will change “a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic.” Huh? There was a false perception that players were unpatriotic when they knelt in a Christian-like prayerful position, head bowed during the national anthem? So the cure for this false perception is to force players to stand when they would prefer to kneel? By forcing them to stand, the fans will now know they are patriotic.? This makes no sense.
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A former colleague asked me last week following word of the decision: “What about injured players supporting their team on the sidelines but temporarily in wheelchairs? Do they have to wheel themselves back to the locker room because they can’t stand for the anthem?”
It’s worrisome that NFL owners seemingly didn’t even consider the collective bargaining agreement before unilaterally moving on such a contentious matter.
It’s worrisome because its sounds like the NFL has made a business decision that, similar to domestic violence, speaking out on racial injustice and police brutality is just not worth it.
But according to data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 94 percent of NFL franchise owners and 75 percent of head coaches are white. Goodell and most of the league’s top executives are white. Blacks own majority stakes in none of the 32 teams. Only seven NFL head coaches in 2017 were black. Yet 70 percent of NFL players are black.
This summer, the NFL may find that these statistics really matter. Because as the old sports saw goes: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
Apropos is the fact that this is all playing out the same week that news breaks about Sterling Brown, a black NBA player, being abused and tased by officers of the Milwaukee Police Department. This is the kind of incident that started the player protests. The NFL didn’t mention the incident in any of its statements.