September 23rd, 2020


The NFL controversy is about so much more than a flag or song

Andrew Malcolm

By Andrew Malcolm McClatchy Washington Bureau/(TNS)

Published June 1,2018

 The NFL controversy is about so much more than a flag or song

On the surface the National Football League looks to have defused the emotional and costly national controversy over players kneeling for the National Anthem before every game.

In a clever PR move, the league ruled last week that all players on the field must stand respectfully for the National Anthem. However, not all players must be on the field for the National Anthem. Those multi-millionaires who want to protest the inequalities of American society for free can stay in the locker room until it's kickoff time.

Let's get serious. What are the chances that this minority of unhappy players will forsake the opportunity for national publicity by sitting obscurely in a smelly locker room instead of making their "statement" by publicly kneeling in front of thousands of paying fans and millions more munching Doritos at home? About the same as the Cleveland Browns winning the next Super Bowl.

The controversy, which began almost two years ago when a benched quarterback refused to stand for the anthem, is a disturbing one. It plays off a mere game, albeit one that has supplanted baseball as the national pastime. It's serious business though, costing the league, teams, advertisers, television networks, parking lots and sports bars countless millions in lost sales of tickets, concessions, merchandise, meals and drinks, lost viewers and considerable good will even among disaffected non-fans.

The league has already suffered black eyes from off-the-field thuggery of some players and its tardy attention to the devastating bodily damages, especially to the head, of giant men violently colliding with each other or the ground with great force at high speed.

But more importantly, the controversy reveals profound fissures within American society. These are primarily between urban Eastern sophisticates and the great unwashed masses of flyover country, most of whom can no longer afford to take their family to even one football fiesta per season because of players' celebrity salaries and owners' payments on the billion-dollar-plus franchise price tags.

These social gaps go much deeper than a mere sports league. These are people who increasingly in recent years have felt ignored and patronized by any powers that be, especially those in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. The tea party outburst was one manifestation. They sense an erosion of traditional values, norms, even manners under the pressures of a changing economy, bitterly divisive and permissive politics, immigrants who resist assimilation and seem to threaten jobs, among other causes.

And all this seems perversely supported by a smothering media. These worried Americans turn on the TV and get lectured by actors and late-night hosts touting their alien coastal values, causes and over-the-top revulsion for the man elected president. They go to watch the NFL for fun as they have for several TV generations now and the first thing is a political protest that interrupts what's supposed to be entertainment and that insults sacred patriotic values once virtually unanimously held.

So intentionally provocative are the protests that professed claims of free speech rights get lost in the two-way anger. Americans on all sides don't seem inclined to listen to each other much anymore. Our way is the only way. Compromise is a bad word, and not just in Congress.

Millions of football viewers didn't compromise either. They sent a message last fall. Overall NFL TV ratings were down nine percent, worse on some nights, forcing network givebacks to make up for smaller audiences. Even ESPN, once the go-to channel for sports coverage before polluting its programming with a surfeit of politics, has lost 16 million subscribers since 2011. Some advertisers drifted off too. And social media was ripe with former fans expressing surprise how little they missed the games.

Paradoxically, of the 17 Republican presidential candidates in 2016 and the initial four Democrats, only the Ivy League-educated New Yorker with billions of dollars and an ego to match detected that voter angst. He didn't create the anger. He rode it. So, he won and the losers still can't accept that because that would mean accepting they were wrong. It's his fault.

Thus, it was strangely predictable last fall when the unpredictable Donald Trump, himself once a pro-football team owner, denounced kneelers for disrespecting the flag and owners for not firing them, as Trump used to do on a reality show. NFL protests were in stark contrast to, for instance, NASCAR's full-bore, unanimous patriotism by drivers, fans and sponsors to the point of inviting more than 5,000 troops into last Sunday's race.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell touted, accurately, many players' deep community involvements. And he added last week, "It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case."

The league's resulting response was craftily designed to shuck that onus. It appeared to address free-speech concerns by allowing self-selected players to avoid the National Anthem and honoring the U.S. flag. But it dumped responsibility for enforcement onto the 32 teams. The league will fine the organizations, not offending players who fail to comply.

Team owners agreed on the new policy to staunch costly PR damage. But several said they'd simply pay the fines without disciplining players, essentially a stay-out-of-jail invitation to disobey the compromise. In other words, our way is the only way.

Andrew Malcolm
McClatchy Washington Bureau

Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s.