The views expressed below are those of the author and not of First and Fan as an organization.
On May 23rd, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL announced players and teams will face punishments. They published an official announcement detailing that players and teams are expected to stand and respect the flag during the playing of the National Anthem, and those who wish to protest may do so by remaining in the locker room.
Statement from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pic.twitter.com/1Vn7orTo1R
— NFL (@NFL) May 23, 2018
According to the NFL, the owners unanimously voted for this policy. Others reports, however, contend that no official vote was held in the first place. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham reported that Steelers President Art Rooney confirmed that there was no actual vote. He told ESPN, “There wasn’t a formal vote, but look, we went around the room and everybody spoke their piece.” So there was not a vote but instead a meeting, and it was also not unanimous as Goodell reported because at least two owners refused to vote on the rule. We can argue semantics all day. An unofficial vote in which 30 of the 32 owners supposedly agreed that players should stand for the National Anthem certainly hints that an official vote could have resulted in a unanimous decision, but until an official and unanimous vote occurs, Goodell has no reason to inexplicably declare the vote was official and unanimous.
Specifically, 49ers owner Jed York said he abstained from voting. The Los Angeles Raiders owner Mark Davis also reportedly abstained from voting. So the NFL is pushing a narrative, right before Memorial Day as well, that all teams uniformly believe players should stand for the National Anthem, yet that is not entirely true. Jets Chairman Chris Johnson (brother of Jets Owner Woody Johnson) stated,
“If somebody takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players. Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest. There are some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines. I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t. There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions. If the team gets fined, that’s just something I’ll have to bear.”
Beyond Johnson, ESPN’s Jim Trotter reported that other owners saw the entire situation as a distraction and that the current policy should remain.
The anthem vote is particularly interesting in that 8-10 owners – before the meetings – privately expressed support for keeping policy as is. Some told me they believed the protests were fading and the focus should be on the positive community work being done by players/league.
— Jim Trotter (@JimTrotter_NFL) May 24, 2018
The most important thing to remember regarding the entire situation is that the more the NFL, the owners, the media, and others draw attention to the protest, the more the situation does not “go away.” The week before Donald Trump began one of his famous twitter wars against Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeling, a total of 6 players across the 32 teams knelt during the National Anthem. The following week, over 200 players knelt or demonstrated. The more the NFL owners and front office try to fight the players kneeling, the more traction the protests gain.
Regardless of the reaction it gained, the NFL’s attempt to depoliticize the National Anthem is still in turn a politicization of the NFL. Standing is just as much a form of political speech as kneeling is. Remaining seated on the bench during the playing of the anthem, Kaepernick’s original form of protest, and remaining in the locker room are all forms of political speech. With the passing of this ruling, however, the NFL is endorsing only a select few forms of political speech, specifically that players can either stand or remain in the locker room – unseen by the NFL’s viewers, advertisers, and owners. Does Goodell stand behind the message behind the protests or does he stand behind the money of the NFL’s advertisers, broadcasters, and owners?
Also take into consideration the false narrative being simultaneously pushed to diminish the original narrative of those taking a knee. Colin Kaepernick first told NFL.com in 2016, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Eric Reid later to the media reiterated that the protest had absolute nothing to do with being anti-military or anti-American:
“I’ve spoken to you all previously about controlling the narrative. And that’s what we’ll do. If I need to say it every time ya’ll ask me, this is not about the military, this is not about the flag, this is not about the anthem. My mother served in the armed forces. Three of my uncles served in the armed forces. In fact, my mom would have went to the Persian Gulf War if she wasn’t pregnant with me. I have the utmost respect for the military, for the anthem, for the flag. So I will say that every time ya’ll interview me. This is about systemic oppression that has been rampant in this country for decades on top of decades.“
Yet Trump and others consistently try to, as Reid acknowledges, “control the narrative” as one that is unpatriotic and unamerican. It seems to be more of an attempt to delegitimize a protest against a historically protected and heroicized occupation: policemen and women. By turning the controlled narrative against those in the military, despite the repeated emphasis at this point’s lack of veracity, the protest appears to be attack against an even further protected and heroicized occupation.
Others followed in Reid and Kaepernick’s footsteps, and immediately faced ad hominem attacks and canceled sponsorship deals. After Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall took a knee in solidarity with his former college teammate Kaepernick against police brutality and racism, he lost two sponsorship deals with CenturyLink and with a Colorado based credit union. Marshall backed up his protests with charity, pledging to donate $300 per tackle during his 2016 season. In an interview with the Denver Post, Marshall defended himself against those calling him unamerican,
“I’m not against the military. I’m not against the police or America. I’m against social injustice. Kaep, he’s using his platform how he wants to use it, to reach the masses. We have freedom of speech. But then we use our platform, and we get bashed for it. It’s almost like they want us to only go with the grain. And once we go against the grain, it’s an issue.”
Those calling the protests ineffective are even more ignorant than those calling them unamerican. In the case of Brandon Marshall, he ended his protests in 2017 after meeting with the Denver Police Department. After discussing with Chief Robert White, the Denver PD changed their use-of-force policy and adjusted how they trained officers. Taking knee made a difference because it sparked a conversation that led to the betterment of society. “Whenever I stand up, I’ll stand up and I think it’ll be a good thing and I think I’ll make an impact,” Marshall said during the 2017 season. “I’m trying to make an impact in the community as well. When I do stand up it’ll be because kneeling really was just to bring attentions to the issues, an awareness factor, a symbol, so to speak, just like the flag is a symbol. That’s really what everything’s about. It’s not about kneeling; it’s about other things, so now I’m doing the donation thing and I’m going to do other things to back up my kneeling.”
Again, though, if kneeling is a political stance, forcing one to stand is also a political stance. The world of sports has historically rallied as a champion of patriotism and nationalism, in addition to compliance over freedom of expression. Trump’s direct intervention into the private corporation that is the NFL marks yet another unprecedented conflict of interest by the President. The “stick to sports” crowd have long championed that politics have no place in sports, yet the persistence of patriotism and nationalism contradict such a standing. Forced patriotism is not freedom. Trump himself is a former sports team owner and even attempted to purchase the Buffalo Bills in 2014. In a recent Twitter rant, Trump suggested that any player who kneels should be deported. Take a look at these articles from 1934, highlighting an incident in which a sports team did not adhere to its government’s political standards of patriotism:
(Left) From The Advocate, an Austarlian Newspaper. January 9th, 1934. (Right) From the New York Daily News. January 7th, 1934.
Many argue the NFL and team owners’ have the right to impose such a rule on their players as they are the team’s employees and the NFL is a business. If a doctor or a Wall Street trader demonstrated political activism in a likewise manner they would be fired. While the NFL is in fact a business, it’s also important to remember it is an entertainment business. The men competing every day are just as much entertainers as they are athletes. They are the select few in our society given, intentionally or unintentionally, a platform to speak along with an audience to listen to them. They are protesting by taking a knee during the national anthem but are crucified for doing so by those who see it as disrespectful and the wrong place. Perhaps if I compared it to the actions of Kim Davis, one might see the hypocrisy. Kim Davis, a former Kentucky county clerk, refused to give a marriage license to a gay couple citing her personal religious beliefs as a Christian (ignore the fact that she has ironically been married four times). She is paid with taxpayer money and, in her own manner, protested in the workplace. Her supreme court case cost the people of Kentucky more than $200 thousand in prosecution fees. Davis not only sparked a conversation about serving injustice to a minority group, but she directly ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, citing that she was acting “under God’s authority.” Speaking of taxpayer dollars, taxpayers spent more than $250 thousand on Vice President Pence’s staged exit of the Colts’ game due to players kneeling during the National Anthem. In comparison to Davis, however, the NFL players have only sparked a conversation highlighting injustice against minorities. But Davis was not met with threats of deportation from the President, instead she was championed by Republicans for defending her religious beliefs despite breaking her oath to uphold the Constitution, meeting Mike Huckabee and other Republican candidates during the 2016 presidential campaign trail. These NFL players are not violating the Constitution, simply using the rights guaranteed to them by the first amendment to protest against civil injustice.
In an open article he wrote to several Oregon newspapers, former college basketball and NBA star Bill Walton first pointed to the double standard that exists between the intersection of politics and sports.
My beliefs are based on logical conclusions that are derived from my analysis of history. Political statements and sports have always been a widely accepted duo by the media as long as they stress the “correct politics.”
We have only to look as far as this year’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Hearts and Minds, to determine the relationships of politics and sports in this country. Players and owners in almost every sport have been indicted and/or convicted of major crimes. Antitrust suits against owners and leagues are pending in many of our federal courts.
The National Basketball Association’s Players Association is sponsor- ing, with union dues, a trip this summer for the league’s players to Brazil, which happens to have one of the most repressive political regimes in mod- ern history and where torture is a standard procedure of interrogation.
The National Football League’s position of “no compromise” in last year’s players’ strike reflects the owners’ attitudes and policies toward work- ing-class people.
And these are the people who are questioning my politics and my rights to be associated with the game of basketball. Maybe we should be the ones questioning their role in the games that we play. One thing is obvious, though. And that is that politics and sports will be accepted as long as your politics reflect those of the ruling elite.
“The correct politics.” To those who make up the NFL owners group (with the most conservative leaning fan base of the top four sports leagues according to FiveThirtyEight), the correct politics are those which make the most money. As Michael Jordan allegedly said, “Republicans buy shoes too.” The more political the league, the more marginalized the league’s audience will be, and in turn, league revenues and ratings will drop. In 2017, the league viewership was down 1.6 million fans per game during the regular season and the league’s Nielsen (television) ratings dropped 9.7 percent. Viewership declined 8 percent in 2016, although the general consensus speculate the 2016 presidential election caused the slide. General consensus for last season’s ratings drop believes in a combination of Trump’s request that his supporters boycott the NFL until players respect the anthem as well as the introduction of streaming services in place of cable or other television subscriptions. The fact remains however, that NFL owners most certainly care about the ratings and viewership because those are what drive advertising revenue. Any potential reason that could jeopardize viewership or revenue is something that must be taken care of. Look at the immediate termination of Brandon Marshall’s sponsorship by CenturyLink as a clear cut example of why Michael Jordan refused to get political during his professional career and NFL owners want players to stand for the anthem.
The decision, official or not, by the NFL and its owners was not one of patriotism or nationalism, as President Trump hopes his supporters believe. It was another business decision by businessmen who care more about their image, their team’s image, and the league’s image than the uncomfortable words represented by a small percentage of the players. They stand behind their players apparently only when it suits them financially and publically (such as the week of September 24th when Trump referred to the players kneeling as “sons of bitches,” resulting in over 200 players and even team owners taking a knee, staying in the locker room, and interlocking arms during the National Anthem). The actual message behind each kneel or interlocked arm or raised fist only means something to the owners if it makes them money or loses them money.
The bottomline is that the smokescreen by NFL owners, President Trump, and others to detract away from the actual intended message behind the protests is one that divides the public more than the disruptive and uncomfortable protest against police brutality and racism. Breaking the status quo is always difficult for those doing it and uncomfortable for those in the status quo, but identifying injustice and talking about injustice is one of the most important steps towards solving such injustices. Kaepernick and co’s entire goal was to start the conversation that only someone with a platform like he could begin. Milwaukee Bucks shooting guard Sterling Brown was profiled and tasered by police for a parking violation. If it were anyone but Brown, a high profile athlete, that story and video would remain buried along with the countless other cases of social injustice. In the words of Brown himself,
“Situations like mine and worse happen every day in the black community. Being a voice and a face for people who won’t be heard and don’t have the same platform as I have is a responsibility I take seriously. I am speaking for Dontre Hamilton of Milwaukee, Laquan McDonald of Chicago, Stephon Clark of Sacramento, Eric Garner of New York, and the list goes on. These people aren’t able to speak anymore because of unjust actions by those who are supposed to ‘serve and protect’ the people.”
My advice to any sports fan is to look at the entire situation at hand. The National Anthem is a source of pride for many Americans. While I have no problem with its playing during sports contests, it is still a vehicle of politicization in and of itself. By forcing to players and coaches to either stand or remain in the locker room during the National Anthem, the NFL and its owners are endorsing a specific politicized course of action, not an apolitical course as they claim.
Former NFL player and US Army Green Beret Nate Boyer was the one who spoke with Colin Kaepernick following his first protest, initially disagreeing with him but understanding his basis. Boyer convinced Kaepernick to kneel instead of sitting on the bench when the anthem played, as kneeling is a sign of respect. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect,” Boyer said after meeting with Kaepernick in person to discuss the other’s beliefs. “When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.” His stance on the entire situation, with the background of both a player and serviceman, as well as his ability to compromise and understand shows the maturity that is needed throughout the entire discourse of the National Anthem. In an open letter to President Trump due to Trump’s constant misrepresentation of the issue, Boyer verbalized what so many have forgotten:
“Today it feels like this national divide isn’t even really about the anthem, or the flag, or kneeling, or sitting or fists in the air. It feels like it’s about winning… This winning mentality seems to have spilled over into an obsession with being right and not willing to admit that maybe, just maybe we were wrong.”