After several NFL owners and coaches have required their players to stand for the national anthem, and the NFL itself made a move to possibly put an end to kneeling or sitting during “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a league meeting next week, one website is reporting that players are refusing to kneel for fear of losing their jobs and paychecks.
The report from the African-American-centric website The Root claims the site was “contacted by eight players and coaches, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. Of those NFL employees, three players and one position coach said that owners, team management or members of the coaching staffs have instructed them not to kneel or have any demonstration during the national anthem.”
Another source said that position coaches were “feeling out” benchwarming players who might be tempted to protest in order to pressure them not to — the implication being that their dispensability may make an anthem demonstration an unwise decision.
“Out of all the players you see taking a knee, there are probably three times as many who want to do it but are scared. If you ain’t a one or two at your position (meaning a first- or second-string player), you ain’t doing it. People have to feed they family,” the source, a member of an NFL coaching staff, said.
The story was published after two NFL teams — the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins — prohibited protests during the national anthem during this weekend’s games. Sports Illustrated reported that the NFL is also looking into a league-wide rule requiring players to stand during the anthem. So, in other words, the next move may be enforced anthem-standing — and the firing of non-essential players who have a problem with that.
Now, it’s worth noting that much like Conservative Tribune, The Root has a very particular editorial point of view, except from the opposite direction. (Sample headline from its front page Wednesday: “Somebody Lied: Why Education Alone Can’t Dismantle White Supremacy.”) Rather unintentionally, however, the article raises a key point about the issue: No matter how much the league and the media might want to spackle over the PR damage being caused by the anthem protests, it isn’t working.
The Root’s NFL piece isn’t particularly specific about where along the timeline of Kaepernick-o-Rama v2.0 these alleged events occurred. For all I know, the behavior described could have been happening inside NFL locker rooms since the beginning. I somewhat doubt it; at least for the first week or so after President Trump’s controversial remarks on anthem-kneeling, league officials were conspicuously and fervently in favor of its players using the national anthem for political purposes however they saw fit.
And, unless you were watching Fox News, the media rather unsubtly celebrated anthem-kneelers as brave vanguards of free speech.
On the Monday morning following Week 3, the star-spangled sitters were pretty much being hailed as John Carlos and Tommie Smith times eleventy billion. That’s when reality began to slowly creep into the picture.
It wasn’t just the angry fans burning their jerseys on social media; those could be dismissed as reactionaries. Ratings were erratic, but generally disappointing. League officials doubtlessly noticed that a Monday night game where there had been protests drew significantly fewer viewers than a Thursday night game the same week where there weren’t any, in spite of the fact that the Monday night matchup (featuring the unbeaten Chiefs and surprising Redskins) may have been the better game. Maybe that was it.
Or perhaps it was the poll that found two-thirds of Americans don’t favor mixing politics and sports, at least on the field. Or maybe another poll that showed that the NFL had been surpassed in popularity by Major League Baseball — a game until recently dismissed in the media as the superannuated dinosaur of the sporting world, only watched by grandfathers annoyed by “that disrespectful Canseco kid” and basement-bound 34-year-old stats geeks.
None of these occurrences augur particularly well for a sport whose business model is predicated upon constant, huge cash infusions — from advertisers, from broadcasters, from athletic apparel makers, from season ticket holders and game-day ticket buyers, and even from taxpayers who don’t care anything about the sport. The wisdom and sustainability of this model would be up for debate even if every player in the league had the inveterate patriotism of Jimmy Stewart, but it becomes doubly problematic when you realize that anthem protests are affecting the bottom line in a hemorrhagic manner.
Two weeks ago, the displays were being feted, both within and without the NFL, as the ultimate celebration of free speech. A fortnight later, two teams have banned them and the NFL is considering a league-wide policy that would do the same thing. From heroes two weeks ago, some players are now apparently worried about having a job.
For that matter, let’s talk about the supposed “bravery” of these players. We’ve been told ad nauseum how courageous the decision to kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner” is. Yet, the coach that The Root talked to explicitly stated more players would be kneeling if they knew they wouldn’t face consequences for it. To extrapolate, that means most or all of the players who are kneeling now know they won’t suffer any financial or career consequences for it.
Say what you will about the aforementioned Messrs. Carlos and Smith, they knew they were likely going to get stripped of their medals and sent home from Mexico City when they made the black power salute during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.
They did it because they stood what they believed for — much like Pat Tillman, who gave up millions in NFL salary to join the military in the aftermath of 9/11 — and paid for it with his life. When it comes to public protest, the difference between courage of conviction and a cheap PR stunt is the willingness to accept adverse consequences for expressing your beliefs. When you have a coach unintentionally confirming that the only people who are kneeling are those who have no chance of losing anything, by process of elimination, you can easily deduce which category the anthem protests fall under.
And, just as a reminder, it’s perfectly legitimate for an employer to fire someone over political speech. We’ve been over this before: Unless one is a government employee, there are no protections for political speech inside or outside of the workplace. This is especially true when said political speech is causing investors and owners to lose money.
The NFL, it might be worth remembering, is a profit-making institution. It is not a $60 billion radical liberal super PAC designed to deliver the social change sought after by a handful of players, no matter what the potential cost to the organization may be. This should be prima facie obvious — and yet, so much of coverage I’ve seen seems to inexplicably assume the opposite.
The Root may find all of this distasteful. Yet, it’s proof that the laws of cause-and-effect are still immutable, no matter how much spin may be applied. If anthem-kneelers and their apologists find those who disagree with them bigoted and regressive, that’s their right. But they oughtn’t be surprised when those they contemn stop allocating their time and money to the league, nor when those who run and finance the show get tired of subsidizing an unpatriotic political stunt.
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