The 2018 NFL season has been underway for more than a month now, and there has been little-to-no talk about the protests against social injustice involving kneeling during the pre-game national anthem. A year ago, the controversy was among the hottest social and political issues in the news cycle, as President Donald Trump repeatedly attacked kneeling NFL players for what he viewed as disrespecting the country. Hundreds of players demonstrated on the field against the president back then. Currently, though, only a few Miami Dolphins players and recently signed Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid (allies of the protest’s originator, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick) are still kneeling consistently during the national anthem.
But the players’ protest was still a hot topic this last offseason, when the League’s owners unilaterally passed an anthem policy mandating that players either stay in the locker room during the anthem or appear publicly and “show respect” on the sideline. The owners’ solution to the controversy was clearly not a compromise, designed only to silence protesting players and remove them from the public eye for the sake of better business optics. The new policy was put on hold after the NFL Players’ Association filed a grievance claiming that the NFL’s actions were “inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement” and overstepping players’ rights.
In truth, the NFL has bungled the entire hullabaloo over players’ protests for social justice from even before Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016. The NFL had been benefiting from “paid patriotism” displays for years, in which teams were paid millions of taxpayer dollars by the Department of Defense in exchange for airing pro-military spectacles. As part of these displays, NFL teams began having their players stand on the field for the anthem beginning in 2009 as a complementary marketing strategy—an ironic twist on conservatives’ “stick-to-sports” complaints. However, the League never instituted a policy actually requiring players to stand for the anthem.
Although the DOD’s efforts were exposed in 2015, leading to the Pentagon banning paid patriotism, the NFL’s problems with the anthem had barely hit. Somehow, the NFL reasoned that it could benefit financially from broadcasting nationalistic sentiment while also not covering its bases by ensuring that players would always adhere to a narrowly defined but profitable definition of patriotism—at least, profitable for owners. When Kaepernick began his protest by kneeling in 2016, the NFL had no explicit policy in place that it could fall back on to manage the situation. The DOD’s use of taxpayer dollars to artificially inflate national pride, using sports as its vehicle, was egregious, but the NFL’s gross incompetence is almost comical.
The League failed to properly prepare for the possibility that a player like Kaepernick might one day decide to use his status and platform as a sports celebrity in a way that contradicted its own messaging about patriotism. Some of the consequences of that failure have been the blackballing of one of the most talented professional-caliber quarterbacks, an increasing partisan divide over the game itself and a hot-tempered, divisive president using the League to energize his base around ugly and erroneous beliefs. The anthem controversy is not the biggest threat to the NFL’s place in American culture (that would be brain trauma), but it has left an indelible stain on the game.
All in all, the NFL continues to show how fundamentally reactionary it is, scrambling to shore up its image rather than anticipating and defusing oncoming threats, which is simply a shame for what I consider to be the best sport in the world. The NFL’s anthem problem has been suspended for now, but a solution acceptable to all parties involved will be near-impossible to find. The issue has become too magnified and our politics too polarized and partisan for things to suddenly go back to how they once were pre-2016 or pre-2009. Besides, trying to make things how they once were would only reinforce the backwards nature of how the NFL operates.
The previous absence of an anthem policy has not been the NFL’s only critical blunder. The players’ desire to kneel, whether to protest social injustice or to unite in solidarity against the president’s attacks, have further shown how incessantly anti-player the NFL is. NFL teams were not the only franchises compensated by the DOD (though they were generally the most significant benefactors) but their sport is easily the most hierarchical. Owners and teams run the League; the nearly 1700 players in the NFL, outside of a few dozen stars, have little-to-no sway. The power disparity at hand is apparent given NFL players’ broader concerns over labor disputes, namely the lack of guaranteed contracts in a high-risk contact sport that has debilitating effects on players’ long-term health and wellbeing.
Compare, for example, the NFL to the NBA. The NBA has mandated that its players stand for the national anthem since the 1980s. The National Basketball Players Association has not pushed back against the NBA’s anthem policy because players have a positive relationship with the NBA, which actively cheers their social activism. Most notably, the NBA defended its best player, LeBron James, after he was targeted on the president’s Twitter account for using his political voice. One organization has a tenuous relationship with the employees that drive its product and consistently flexes its power over them. The other has developed a productive dialogue with its stars and supports them while upholding procedural rules.
The NFL benefitted from paid patriotism without having guidelines in place to safeguard against controversy. An anthem policy is beyond overdue; it's simply too late now for one to work effectively to everyone’s liking and the League must recognize that. To survive in our politically and socially charged environment, the NFL needs to initiate a broader cultural shift of its own. The League needs to ditch its reactionary approach, become more pro-player and begin thinking forward on issues like that of the social injustice protests. Otherwise, the NFL will continue to mishandle sensitive player issues and its brand will suffer the consequences. Professional football might still survive, but it will hardly scratch the surface of its true potential.
Aman Tiku is an Opinion Editor for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate.