NFL is Playing Politics of the Worst Kind

| June 1st, 2018

“Stick to sports.”

Every sports journalist or athlete who has ever expressed a political opinion has probably had this insipid phrase thrown their way. It’s become quite a common refrain, particularly after the media took note that Colin Kaepernick wasn’t standing for the national anthem a couple years ago.

Like most snarky retorts it’s not meant to be particularly clever or thoughtful. It’s meant to shut down conversation and put someone in their place.

It’s also bullshit.

Not only is it ridiculous to expect a person, let alone a public figure with a large platform, to solely talk about their profession and nothing else 24/7, it’s also disingenuous because often the person saying “stick to sports” doesn’t mean they don’t want someone talking about politics. They just don’t want someone expressing a political viewpoint opposing their own.

Last week’s decision by the NFL to amend their national anthem policy was not made in an effort to “stick to sports”, or appear nonpartisan, as some have claimed. The decision was explicitly political. They implemented this rule in the hopes it would appeal to the political and social leanings of those they view as their core audience: namely, conservative white people.

Let me get two things out of the way before I go any further.

  1. Yes, I am aware not all people who are against the protests are white and/or conservative, and that many conservative-leaning white people are fine with or supportive of players protesting. But in general, white conservatives have been much more disapproving of the protests than liberals and people of color.
  2. This is not a First Amendment issue. Let me repeat that, just so we’re all clear. This is not a First Amendment issue. Private organizations have the right to restrict what their employees say and do during company time. I am well aware of this, so no need to point that out in the comments.

Moving on…..

It’s easy to see the political motivations behind the NFL’s decision. Look no further than the reactions coming out of the White House. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted a story about the new ruling shortly after the news broke coupled with the hashtag #winning, and President Trump casually suggested that anyone who still chooses to not stand for the anthem “maybe shouldn’t be in the country”. (True lovers of freedom, those two.)

In an interview on Tuesday, Eagles DE Chris Long noted the political motivations at work by saying the rule change was “…driven by fear of a diminished bottom line … and the underlying factor is that they (the owners) are afraid of the president.” Long’s theory was bolstered Wednesday as reports came out that several NFL owners are on record as saying that Trump’s intense public focus on this issue was a motivating factor in changing the rules.

So what we have here is a president and vice president who grandstanded and actively put pressure on a private organization to silence peaceful protests by their employees, all in the hopes of energizing their base with an empty display of faux patriotism.

That’s all this is by the way. Faux patriotism.

I’m not saying that everyone against the protests is a fake patriot, or that they don’t actually care about our troops. I do think that the players have made it abundantly clear, on multiple occasions, that they are in no way trying to disrespect the military, and that kneeling has nothing to do with being against the troops or the flag. But I also understand that many people against the protests are coming from a place of good faith.

I just don’t believe Trump is one of those people, and I don’t believe the NFL made this decision out of respect to those good-faith people, or out of respect to the military. I don’t really think the NFL as an organization cares about the military at all, or anything else besides public perception and how it affects their bottom line, for that matter.

(If you think that giant flags and specialty camouflage merchandize in November indicate the league’s commitment to veterans, I suppose you also think that sea of pink you see in stadiums during October means they actually give a damn about the well-being of women?)

It’s all for show.

Trump knows it.

The NFL knows it.

Twitter trolls who celebrate this ruling while simultaneously fuming over Roseanne being fired at ABC probably know it, too.

The NFL is capitulating to the craven culture war politics that have been emblematic of the Trump administration, and yet so many out there seem more upset at players who quietly demonstrate out of a real conviction to highlight inequality in our country. Why? For those of you sick of the politics on either side make no mistake, this ruling does nothing to quell such conversations.

Sure players can’t demonstrate without being fined anymore, but the new rule allows any player who doesn’t want to stand for the anthem to stay in the locker room to avoid a fine. Do you really think that the press won’t take note of players who choose to do so? Do you think fans who disapproved of the kneeling will somehow be completely fine with players, or entire teams, choosing not to come out? What about owners who choose to pay their players’ fines for demonstrating, as the Niners and Jets’ ownership have already pledged to do? You think Trump won’t rage tweet about that at 3 am, sparking several days of wall-to-wall coverage of player reactions, Twitter hottakes, and countless thinkpieces? Come on.

This rule didn’t silence the ongoing conversations around the protests. It ensured they’d be amplified from now throughout the entire 2018 season. There sure as hell wouldn’t have been two articles on DBB about it in one week had they left the issue alone.

[Editor’s Note: There would have been zero. This issue was already dead in the 2017 postseason.]

The NFL is playing politics, and shallow politics at that. So while the league tries to appease a narcissistic autocrat and his supporters, I’ll continue to side with men like Colin Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, Kenny Stills, Sam Acho and all the other players who have not only actively engaged or been vocally supportive of the protests, but have done real work to improve the lives of men and women in their communities.

Because what they’re doing feels far more patriotic than anything the NFL has managed to do.

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