Is the NFL Fanning the Flames of Divisive Politics?

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Those were the words of ex-San Francisco 49ers star quarterback, Colin Kaepernick used to explain his reason for kneeling during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of NFL games in 2016. He said it was in protest of the social injustice and inequality many have experienced as African-Americans in this country. Later other NFL athletes joined the protest by either kneeling, raising their fist, or sitting in the locker room during the pre-game rendition of the national anthem. These actions were broadcast directly into living rooms right across the country every Sunday afternoon.  These athletes were using their public platform to focus America’s attention on police brutality, and particularly police violence in African-American communities.


Kaepernick’s Kneeling; an act that he himself has called an extension of the Black Lives Matter Movement, brought politics, sports and media together in a way that is believed by many to be unprecedented. However, despite the strong reaction from many critics, pro football has a long history of directing the nation’s attention on social issues. The beloved sport has been a perfect lens to look deep into the values that we as a country hold so dear.

What made the protest so controversial was how it spurred an emotional conflict of ideals that seemed to break along the lines of what the national anthem represented to various citizens. Some took deep offense to the fact that many of our brave men and women in uniform (our armed forces) had died for the nation that the flag represents. Where Kaepernick’s protest began as a statement about police and unequal treatment in communities, had been received as a sign of disrespect and disloyalty to the country. Many people, whose family members fought in our country’s wars, reacted to the protest in a very personal way. In addition, there were many people who had no family members in the military, but their political leanings are such that they feel a natural kinship and pride when it comes to our country, our flag and our service members. As part of this respect, all NFL games begin with an observance of the national anthem and ask all in attendance to stand up during the performance. Over the years, this observance has grown to elaborate displays of precision such as, military jet flyovers, smoke-can paratroopers descending directly onto the gridiron, military regiment presentations, and the unfurling of a massive flag that across the entire field. The simple act of not standing, and then kneeling during the anthem, pushed open a rift between two ideals that until then had sat just beneath the quiet peace of the game; where people who understand extreme social inequity and those who understand personal sacrifice for the national good, were put at odds.


Television viewership has dropped by 20% over the course of the 2016 season, attributed by some to the protest and the backlash. Many had felt that the NFL franchise owners and the League President, Roger Goodell, acted too slowly and had no true opinion of their own (other than making money) which disappointed people on both sides of the issue. Weeks went by while the protests continued, and the voices of support or anger grew stronger in the media. In fact, President Donald Trump weighted in on the issue with his own brand of rhetoric saying, If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!” He would continue the call for players to be fired for kneeling well into the 2017 season. During that time, the conservative and progressive media outlets entrenched themselves to serve the echo chambers of their constituents.

The sprawling narratives began to wander. What started off with the issue of racial injustice and police brutality, and the disrespect of military and our national pride, seemed to change as time went on. Some media hubs began to highlight the rights of the players to exercise their rights as citizens to free speech, while other media groups presented the outrage some felt over football player pay as a reason for them to “shut up and play” (being that the country had been so good to them). Neither of these later narratives allowed the nation a chance to have a frank honest discussion about the root of the initial issues. Media on both sides of the issue did the country a disservice, by seeking to build a wider audience narrative to the American public. Police brutality of Black people does not sell ads as much as big corporations and politicians trampling on the first amendment, and likewise, military families are not as big of an audience as malcontents and cynics who scoff at high pay and social conciseness (believing that the two cannot coexist at the same time).


While it may not have been evident on television with the stadiums packed week in and week out, the political overtones began to overshadow play on the field. To be honest with you, prior to this protest, I don’t think the national anthem was even broadcast on tv regularly. Every now and then, and during the playoffs the networks would fill time with the national anthem … to see it on tv with the players standing shoulder to shoulder was a special thing. Now, during the controversy every game had the national anthem broadcast, not for the meaning of “The Star-Spangled Banner” but to see who would kneel, who would defy American values and who would the President say should be fired in his next press conference … never mind the hurricanes and mass shooting in Las Vegas. Media was happy to focus on the NFL protest as “issue entertainment”, and not to burden viewers with real-world problems.


As the NFL faced growing backlash for its missteps, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid paid a high price for standing up, or rather kneeling, for their beliefs. Neither player has found employment in the league since the 2017 season. It has been alleged that the NFL has conspired amongst its ownership to keep athletes who protest off of active rosters for speaking their minds (essentially blacklisting players). Mr. Kaepernick has taken the NFL to court over the conspiracy to keep him out of the NFL and in February 2019, he was awarded an undisclosed settlement to end the collusion suit. 


The NFL is doing all it can to reduce politics in the locker room and in 2019 there will most likely not be a media frenzy and shots of football players kneeling during the anthem. The NFL has made it clear with new guidelines stipulating that players must stand during the anthem or abstain by not leaving the locker room until it is over (a move that will not have juicy clips for broadcasters to replay over and over again, nor will it get the message of racial injustice into those Sunday morning living rooms across America, like the original protest was meant to do. No, the NFL money printing machine will keep on churning, players will keep on playing, owners will keep owning, and we Americans, have won and lost something very meaningful, all at the same time.


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