By Joel Sawyer
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So the kneeling controversy is back in the limelight this offseason, not because of anyone kneeling but because the NFL teams’ owners and public relations department decided to punt it back into the public.
Before we get into the policy and why it’s dumb, I’ve first got to say that as a former PR pro, giving this issue more life and legs is just about the most boneheaded messaging decision I’ve ever seen. This was a ham-fisted attempt at a compromise, and besides being idiotic on its merits it’s going to backfire spectacularly. We break it down on this week’s episode, which you can listen to on the player below.
The NFL’s new policy boils down to this: If you’re on the field for the National Anthem, you must stand or your team will face fines. The team has the option of passing those fines on to the players themselves, or paying the fines as an organization. Players who choose not to stand for the Anthem have the option of remaining in the locker room for its duration. But kneeling on the field is officially against the rules.
Here’s why this is going to blow up in NFL owners’ faces, and create an even bigger “problem” than they had before.
First, the timing is bad. No one was talking about this, and as far as controversies go, it had largely petered out. In October, more than 200 players kneeled at the height of the protests. By the end of the season, almost no one was. No one did during the Super Bowl. So worst case scenario, if you’re the NFL you’ve got a few players, maybe a couple dozen at most still kneeling? Who cares?
I say “who cares” because despite the bluster from the right wing media, the NFL’s bottom line was not impacted in any significant way. Conservative websites were replete with anecdotes of how the NFL was hurting, but as the saying goes the plural of anecdote isn’t “data.” Here’s the only number that matters: in 2017, the NFL for the first time ever crossed the $14 billion mark in revenue, its best year ever. Try as they might to create a storyline that a few scattered protests by season’s end were hurting the sport, the numbers just don’t bear it out.
Second, you’re giving more people more of a reason to be pissed than they ever had before.
Already, the Left is looking at this as a political sop to Donald Trump, and you can’t blame them for feeling that way because Trump is eating this up. Never one to let a good dog whistle go to waste, less than 24 hours after the NFL announced the decision, Trump was crowing about it on Fox News, and took it one step further by suggesting that people who don’t stand maybe should be deported.
Totalitarian much, Donnie?
And do you think the MAGA crowd is going to be happy with protesters staying in the locker room instead of coming onto the field and ‘specting the flag? Doubtful. I’d predict many will be even more butthurt and demand those players not be allowed to play. In other words, the NFL’s actions are likely to further alienate the very people they wished to appease, and antagonize an entirely new constituency to boot.
Third, you’re setting up for a showdown between team owners and players. Some teams, like the Jets, will support continued kneeling, fines be damned. This will be a source of controversy within the league, as players may very well demand that same level of support from many more of their respective organizations. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that this ends up in a collective bargaining dispute, something no one wants to see happen.
Add to that, some players are already planning other forms of protest, and may stay in the locker room just to spite the NFL. And what happens when there’s another egregious instance of police brutality against a minority, and new players who have never protested before feel compelled to speak out publicly? It’s not hard to imagine this being an even bigger headache for owners than it already was.
Finally, “letting” people stay in the locker room misses the point entirely.
There are many, many people in our country who don’t like it when people kneel for the Anthem, but they get it and respect it as a form of protest. I’m one of them. And there are also many people from the anti-kneeling camp who come at it from a good place – they agree with the NFL players on the subject of addressing racist policing practices in the country, but vehemently disagree with the act of kneeling during the anthem. I don’t believe Donnie Bone Spurs is one of those people, but there are a lot, particularly among our veterans.
But agree or disagree with the kneeling, it began with an acknowledgement from Colin Kaepernick during his conversation with former Green Beret and NFL Player Nate Boyer that if you want to protest during the Anthem, kneeling is a proper way to show respect. My kids do it when someone gets hurt in sports, and they’re certainly not mocking that injured player’s temporary inability to walk.
In other words, protesters contend they ARE showing respect for the flag, but in a way that simultaneously seeks to convey that part of America is broken or injured. But staying in the locker room? Ignoring the Anthem entirely? To me, that seems a far more offensive form of speech than coming to the field and quietly kneeling.
Staying in the locker room is an extremely tone-deaf and problematic alternative to Anthem-kneeling, and one I suspect will overshadow actual football conversation once again this year. I’m throwing a flag for unnecessary stupidity.