Let’s Calm Down About the NFL’s Anthem Policy

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

A lot of folks are beating up on the National Football League for its new policy requiring players, if they’re on the field, to “stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.” Angry fans have complained that the NFL is taking away the rights of its players. Danny Heifetz compared the league to the white moderates famously criticized by Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail.  And the New York Times titled its editorial against the policy “The N.F.L. Kneels to Trump.”

Well, let’s slow down. It’s true that President Donald Trump has praised the new policy, and, giving his predilections, may soon be claiming credit. But he’s a relatively unimportant figure in the controversy. There’s a lot more going on here than a tug of war between the president and the lords of football. Here my six quick thoughts:

1. The revised policy is neither radical nor extreme. It brings the NFL more or less in line with the National Basketball Association, which requires its players “to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem” — a policy the NBA reaffirmed just last year. But nobody seems to think that professional basketball players are less likely than professional football players to speak out on issues of social and political importance. If anything, it’s the other way around.

Moreover, let’s remember that the new NFL policy levies fines for violations not against players but against teams. Yes, a team might still discipline a player for costing it money, but New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson has already announced that he will “bear” the fines himself rather than pass them on to the players. One imagines that Johnson’s approach might swiftly become if not the norm at least the fashion.

2. Although it’s a bit of a news media parlor game to drag Trump’s name into every controversy —  the Times is hardly alone here — the notion that the president’s loud criticism of the protesting players is the reason for the change suggests that the billionaires who run football are afraid of him. This seems unlikely. A better way to frame the case is that Trump is merely giving voice to what a lot of football fans think – and the owners know it.

3. Let’s never forget that the NFL is a business for profit. The owners believe that the protests are hurting their bottom line. They may or may not be right in this belief, but certainly the league is no longer the ratings gorilla it once was. Viewership has plummeted. Some argue that the protests are a big part of the explanation, and perhaps they’re right. In a 2017 J.D. Power survey, some 26 percent of those who say they’re watching less football cited the protests as the reason.

And although there are plenty of other available explanations, no business owner wants the company to be caught up in the swirl of a political controversy — especially when the swirl has continued for two years and shows no signs of abating. True, companies trying to escape the swirl sometimes act rashly (I’m looking at you, Starbucks), but escape is always the goal.

4. Every business owner also has to face the headache of how to deal with controversial statements by employees. An increasing number of companies search social media posts not only by potential hires but also by those who already work there. Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who sparked the protests by refusing to stand for the anthem in 2016, has not been able to find a team willing to take a chance on him. His supporters believe he’s being subjected to an unfair boycott, and Kaepernick himself has filed a grievance. But if we’re going to support the quarterback, let’s not set out a special rule for celebrities. Even outside the spotlight, the problem is not going away.

5. The way the anthem protests have dragged on has done little good for the causes that sparked them. As I have noted before in this space, once the issue becomes your right to protest rather than what you’re protesting, you’ve already lost the battle. When a message about substance is sidetracked into a debate about process, the content of the message grows fuzzy. (Here’s some clarity, lost in the clamor.) The news media’s difficulty in articulating the players’ concerns is what enables the league to hide behind its commitment of $100 million to “social justice issues” — a vague and inoffensive phrase that reduces the protests over racial injustice to just one tiny drop in an ocean of left causes. In short, the players may not like the rule, but it was nearly time anyway for them to find a more effective way to make their point.

6. Finally, the policy might make a lot less difference than its critics seem to think. I have already mentioned the possibility that some teams will eat the fines. But there’s a deeper concern: It’s not clear what the new policy actually requires. Veteran football writer Jason Reid has called the rule “utterly incoherent,” and he’s utterly correct. The NFL will allow players to protest by staying in the locker room during the anthem, which once upon a time was standard practice. Imagine half a dozen or so players on one team taking up this option, remaining out of sight while forty-odd others stand on the sideline. Won’t lots of fans still be upset?

More confusing still, the new rule requires that the standing players be respectful. “But what about raised fists?” asks Reid. (Cue iconic photograph of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics.) Fists in the air, a show of power and determination, will likely stoke more controversy than kneeling, not less. The policy doesn’t tell us whether it’s permitted, but I suspect we’ll find out during the first week of the 2018 season. Stay tuned.

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