How could a group of executives be so tone deaf? So insensitive? So willing to shoot themselves in the foot, then amputate the foot, then throw the bloody appendage at a salivating grizzly bear?
Oh, right. It’s the NFL.
In case you had forgotten about last year’s controversy involving players kneeling during the national anthem, the NFL has revived the strife and probably made it worse than ever. The league has adopted a new rule fining teams if a player or staff member refuses to stand during the playing of the national anthem.
The new decision is a capitulation to President Trump, who blasted the league last year for doing nothing as players took a knee during the anthem. The gesture began with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the anthem in 2016, to protest police brutality against African-Americans. By 2017, Kaepernick was out of the league, but dozens of players emulated his protests.
Trump’s hammering hurt the league, with some fans boycotting, at Trump’s urging. Ratings fell. So naturally, the NFL decided to address the problem by enraging everybody on the other side of the controversy. The league is essentially telling the players to shut up, and it chose not to enlist the players union in the decision, making sure to alienate much of the talent that brings the fans in the first place.
Not a typical business
The NFL is no ordinary business. It’s essentially a billionaire’s club, with owners making most of the decisions free of shareholders, regulators or input from the public. There’s indirect public feedback, via the advertisers who provide the bulk of the league’s $14 billion in annual revenue. But that obviously doesn’t prevent a few sheltered billionaires from having a “hold my beer” moment that they’ll probably regret in record time.
Some fans approve. The kneeling protests clearly disturbed some veterans and others who felt the players disrespected the flag and the many who have fought to defend it. That’s fair, and it reflects the muddled nature of the protests themselves, which never really came with a clearly defined grievance or a preferred solution.
But the racial undercurrent of the league’s new gag rule has dismayed many others. And as an example of leadership, it’s an atrocity. The rule is inherently divisive, pitting imperious owners against the help. It inflames racial tension rather than calming it. It has reignited a controversy that was petering out. And more outrage is sure to come, as the league must now nitpickingly define exactly what constitutes a protest. What about turning your back on the flag? Shielding your eyes? Crouching without kneeling? Some people just don’t know when to shut up.
The NFL’s predicament isn’t an easy one. The league is at the epicenter of tectonic social forces involving race, class, wealth, celebrity and social justice. But come on. Continuing to do nothing would have been better. The league could have teamed up with the players’ union and made a deal: End the kneeling in exchange for off-the-field action and investment that addresses the protesters’ concerns. The league could have told Trump explicitly to back off, and taken whatever hit that entailed, at least showing some backbone. It could have found a way to get Kaepernick back into the league to rebuff claims that he’s being blacklisted. It could have carved off a fraction of its profits and quintupled the budget for Kaepernick’s Foundation.
Instead, the NFL essentially told its protesting players to can it, or else. Billionaires are used to having their way. But the NFL billionaires aren’t going to. The social and racial conflagrations plaguing the nation and overshadowing pro football are too tumultuous for the league to contain. Some fires need to burn for a while. Especially when the establishment keeps fueling them.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman