The National Football League has a real crisis on its hands.
No, this isn’t about concussions, domestic violence or even the ridiculously infamous “Deflategate.” This is about the national anthem — whether to stand, kneel or raise a fist while giant American flags are being unfurled from end zone to end zone.
The anthem crisis maybe isn’t an existential one — yet — to the NFL, but it has the potential to mushroom into something much bigger than being merely about Colin Kaepernick and a few other protesters. This crisis threatens to pit the league against its very own paying customers.
You see, strangely, a league that has no compunction about fining players for wearing the wrong socks, shoes or twerking after a touchdown is suddenly silent about whether its employees must stand during the playing of the national anthem. “The Shield” that would not allow players to commemorate slain police officers in Dallas has no firm policy on whether it’s OK or not if someone in an NFL uniform decides to chill during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
The NBA, generally considered the most player-friendly and progressive of the North American pro sports leagues, actually has a rule about the anthem, (and it’s pretty unequivocal): “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.” And that goes for both the U.S. and Canadian anthems, since it has a team based in Toronto.
But when Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers’ backup quarterback, decided that he would no longer honor the flag, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell limply made a statement saying the league merely “encourages” players to be “respectful” during the anthem, but there was no mention of requiring players to stand. If Kaepernick’s protest left the door ajar, Goodell’s response served to blow it from the hinges as a stampede of players decided to use the occasion to demonstrate whatever grievances they have against their own country.
Kaepernick’s stated reason for his protest is that minorities in the U.S. are being oppressed. But more specifically, he claimed that he could not stand for the flag while the police are murdering civilians and getting away with it. He also displayed his disdain for law enforcement by wearing socks featuring pigs in police hats during practice (and so far appears to have received no discipline from the league for impermissible gear).
Whether anyone agrees with Kaepernick’s sentiments, however, should be irrelevant to the NFL. This isn’t a free speech issue as many sympathetic to Kaepernick’s cause have claimed it to be. If Kaepernick made disparaging remarks toward gays, minorities or any ethnic group, he would’ve been fined and/or suspended. In fact, he was docked over $5,000 by the league in 2014 for allegedly uttering the N-word during a game toward Lamarr Houston of the Chicago Bears (although he was later judged not to have used the slur).
This isn’t about the First Amendment. While Congress shall make no law infringing on your freedom of expression, your employer damn well can impose what kind of conduct it expects when you’re on company time while wearing company gear. The NFL — just like the NBA — has every right to demand that its players stand erect and make no fuss while the national anthem is playing.
By being derelict on this matter, though, Goodell risks his league alienating a healthy chunk of its paying customers — the fans and sponsors. The commissioner, already with an antagonistic relationship with the players and their union over what many see as his disciplinarian overreach, probably decided that he didn’t want to pick another fight. Maybe he wished that this whole anthem business would go away quickly, especially had the shaky Kaepernick been cut by the 49ers.
But by suggesting that there are no rules, Goodell guaranteed that this issue would engulf his league — for the entire season and possibly beyond. And make no mistake, there’s already a strong racial undercurrent in this chasm — so far, the protesting football players are black, and the most visceral reaction toward the protesters has come from the league’s majority white fan base. The NFL has unwittingly allowed itself to become the biggest platform in America’s summer of discontent, pitting certain minority groups against the police and their supporters.
What Goodell has done is not even condoned by some of the owners, who are ostensibly his bosses. And it is simply bad business. The NFL, already beset by problems with player safety and discipline, risks further erosion of its fan base, as reflected both in attendance and especially television ratings.
What the all-powerful commissioner should have told his players is this: Protest all you want, but do it on your own time and dime.