As big as the black eye from last year’s National Anthem controversy loomed for this upcoming NFL season – especially with an election in November and a president in the White House more than happy to stoke the fires – in reality the major story lines heading into the summer involved young quarterbacks, tightening division races, and coming rules changes to make the game safer. In essence, everything the league wants the chattering class to discuss.
But the tone-deafness of the NFL and its leadership knows no limits. This offseason commissioner Roger Goodell and the 32 owners were given three choices in what to do regarding the handful of players that were still kneeling for the National Anthem by the end of the 2017 season. Ignore them. Embrace them. Or punish them. Inexplicably they have chosen the latter.
If you remove Donald Trump from the equation, ignoring the situation may have been the best business course of action. Before he inserted himself into the issue the protests were shrinking and fans were moving beyond them. The only mass protests came in response to him, not the owners. It’s reasonable to think that trend would have continued. If not for him.
So considering the reality that even if one player was to kneel during the 2018 season the president would most likely say something that would blow the entire thing up again, sending more players to their knees, I can understand why the NFL chose to do “something.” I think they looked ahead to the rhetoric we are sure to be engulfed in this coming October and November as the election heats up, the almost certainty that the president will try to use any such kneeling to drum up electoral support, and they made a calculated decision to devise a new policy.
But why on earth that new policy did not involve coordination and participation with the NFL Player’s Association is absolutely mind-boggling. Even if they were to come up with something that placated all sides, not consulting with the players is guaranteeing anger on their part. But they didn’t even try to meet the players halfway. Instead opting to shove the entire issue behind closed doors.
To be clear, this is not a First Amendment issue. Our Constitutional protections involve actions from the government, not our employers. The NFL is absolutely within its rights to set the policy they have. Telling the players that they can either stand or stay in the locker room is perfectly legal. But this is far less about what the NFL can do, and much more about what it should do. And in my opinion this is absolutely the wrong way to go.
The league could have created a league sponsored moment before each game, or between quarters, or after, or anywhere but the anthem, that would allow the players, fans, and ownership, to all reflect upon and recognize the victims of inequality and abuse. And they could have done in a way that protected the patriotism that surrounds the playing of the National Anthem.
Each team, for each game, could place the spotlight on someone local in the community who is working hard to lessen the impact of inequality. The teams could arrange a mid-week visit to the communities hardest hit, and invite children from that community to the stadium on Sunday.
The NFL could have chosen to join the cause of its players, make it their own, and in turn make it a cause shared by millions of its fans. They could have honored their players and have them tell their own stories of discrimination. Few things are as powerful as hearing the struggles and injustices suffered by someone you assume lives a charmed life as a millionaire athlete.
The NFL could have done any of these things and at almost no expense to them. They could have increased the players platform while at the same time removing the focus from the two minutes of the National Anthem. The NFL could have stepped up and become a leader on this issue, boldly announcing that in 2018 racial inequality is unacceptable, and it will now do everything in its sizable power to end it.
But that isn’t what the NFL has done. That’s not the direction they’ve taken. Instead, they have chosen to shrink the player’s platform even further while punishing those players who don’t toe the company line.
What an opportunity lost. What a colossal mistake this is sure to become. What a sad excuse of a leader Roger Goodell continues to be. What a truly disappointing decision by a group of owners that fall further out of touch with the men that deliver their product.