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Blaming NFL ratings slide on player protests is ‘intellectually dishonest,’ says union chief

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Intellectually dishonest. Simplistic. Willfully ignorant.

These are the terms that NFL Players Association representatives used to describe anyone who links the NFL’s much-debated ratings decline over the past two years to player protests. Despite the lightning-rod issue appearing to become more of a back-burner discussion late in the season, it didn’t stop the players union from issuing some strong words to the anti-protest masses. Particularly as it related to drawing a correlation between the league’s television ratings and players expressing themselves on the field.

“Let me kick it off this way,” NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith said during Thursday’s annual state of the players union address. “One, I believe every bit of detailed analysis demonstrates that that is wrong. NASCAR – their championship series [viewership] is down 24, 25 percent. From 2006, I believe they’re down 45 percent. There isn’t a television show, news show that isn’t at least experiencing a double-digit decline. To try to pin declining ratings on any single thing is being intellectually dishonest.”

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, spoke about players’ protests during his state of the NFLPA address on Thursday. (AP)

Nielsen’s latest numbers projected a fairly healthy slide in traditional NFL viewership – down 9.7 percent during the 2017 season. That’s on top of an 8 percent ratings dip in 2016, which the league partially blamed on an election year. A large portion of that debate continued to focus on player protests during the playing of the national anthem at games, which became enough of an issue for NFL owners that the league cut a deal with a players coalition to contribute as much as $100 million over a seven-year span to various social justice and racial equality pursuits.

But that hasn’t stopped two conversations heading into the offseason – each being driven by a variety of voices inside the NFL and out. First, whether or not there is serious depth of data to suggest player protests had anything to do with the NFL’s ratings decline (the union says there isn’t); and second, whether the league could make a rule this offseason to curb protests when the 2018 season begins (the NFL has said it won’t).

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Clearly, the NFLPA continues to chafe when it comes to the ratings blame game which has become somewhat of a political pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey for President Donald Trump. Serving a red meat reference to his political base during the State of the Union speech this week, Trump highlighted a story about Preston Sharp, a 12-year-old who organized a campaign to place flags on the graves of nearly 40,000 veterans. Sharp attended the speech in Washington and gave Trump his entry for his latest back-handed swipe at NFL players.

“Young patriots like Preston teach all of us about our civic duty as Americans,” Trump said. “Preston’s reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”

That didn’t go unnoticed by NFL players, although the President’s jabs have generally become little more than white noise throughout the league. That said, rolling ratings into the conversation has not gone unnoticed – largely because it touches on the league’s bottom line. The union is taking an increasingly combative stance against those who want to connect ratings and players expressing personal freedoms.

“As a player when I hear that, my initial response is, ‘Why are you saying that?’ ” said Baltimore Ravens tight end Ben Watson, who is on the NFLPA’s executive committee. “Usually the person that’s saying that or the entity that is saying that does not agree with what the players are doing. It’s a very simplistic analysis. It’s like [DeMaurice Smith] said, [it’s a] dishonest and willfully ignorant thing to say that it should be tied to a player kneeling.

“When you look at just the charts, the way people consume our game is changing. We’ve got tablets. We’ve got streaming. All those things. There are other ways people are watching. It’s not just tied to a player kneeling. I think when people use that, it’s a very easy thing to use. But when you look at the revenues, they’re still going up.

“Those people aren’t really talking about football,” Watson continued. “What they really want to have a conversation about is should these guys be taking a knee, or should they not be taking a knee. That’s the issue. It’s a very easy copout to say, ‘Look at the NFL. They’re ruining the game.’ ”

The league’s ratings – and how to accurately measure them – will continue to be a hot-button topic throughout the offseason and into 2018. Largely because the league is looking for a way to reverse the dip, whether it’s as real as it looks or not. And that will continue to make player protests at least part of the conversation, particularly among owners who have continued to express discomfort over protests that occur during the national anthem. For now, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell continues to suggest that there will be no rules changes to alter the dynamic of the relationship between players and owners. In turn, his comments have suggested to the union that a status quo has been achieved.

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“I don’t know what the league plans on doing [with rules changes] for the offseason,” Smith said. “We don’t get invited to those meetings. The only thing I think would emphasize is both [New York Giants co-owner] John Mara – who is head of the [NFL management council] – and Roger Goodell, who is obviously the commissioner of the National Football League, met with us and told us that they believed in the player’s right to protest.”

That’s the state of the issue for now as the league continues to search for hard data to understand ratings. And that will keep anthem protests squarely within the league’s television autopsy. Drawing a causation from one to the other might be intellectually dishonest, simplistic or willfully ignorant. But it doesn’t make the perception any less real.

And that’s why this issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

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