On the surface, it looks like a compromise. Underneath, it is a capitulation. Yesterday the National Football League and its 32 team owners announced the establishment of a new policy on the issue of player ‘kneel-downs’ during the playing of the national anthem to express solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other radical groups who see America as the land of racial injustice. While the policy nominally bars players from kneeling down on the sidelines and gives owners the latitude to levy fines against violators, it also allows players to protest by remaining in their locker rooms. This is not a resolution. Indeed, it is a guarantee of further political melodrama.
Last November 29, as National Legal and Policy Center discussed at length days later, the National Football League and the NFL Players Association reached an agreement over this issue to ward off controversy. The league would provide $89 million over seven years to various organizations supported by the protesting players and their political handlers. This “agreement” was a shakedown driven by owner fear of bad publicity and a strike. During the 2016 and 2017 seasons, large numbers of players, overwhelmingly black, knelt down during the pregame playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in stadiums across the country. In short order, this became a ritual for dozens if not hundreds of players.
This was guerrilla theater in the service of political protest. Spurred by moral preening of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the protesting players sounded pretty much like the social media network known as Black Lives Matter. The league, claimed Kaepernick and other black players, was turning a blind eye from wanton killings by white police officers of innocent blacks in cities across the nation. “I am not going to stand up to show pride for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said of his initial foray into protest occurring prior to a 2016 season exhibition game. Suddenly, social justice had a new name. Pundits, bloggers, civil rights leaders and street activists obsequiously fawned over this hero for our troubled times.
What these activists ignored, however, was that the alleged “police killings,” as the press often has termed them, were in every case a justifiable response to suspicious or lethal behavior by an uncooperative black suspect. In highly-publicized fatal incidents in Ferguson and Minneapolis, for example, all credible evidence indicated that the suspects, respectively, Michael Brown and Jamar Clark, had attempted to take an officer’s service revolver with the clear intent of shooting the officer. There were no grand jury indictments of the cops who fired their service weapons for the simple reason that there was nothing to indict. The NFL protestors also conveniently ignored that fact that avenging angels in various cities murdered unsuspecting on-duty police officers. In December 2014, Ishmael Brinsley murdered two Brooklyn cops while they were sitting in their squad car. In separate incidents in July 2016, Micah Johnson murdered five police officers in Dallas, and Gavin Long murdered three officers in Baton Rouge. In each case, the suspect was a black male bent on avenging the deaths of people like Brown and Clark. Somehow those deaths weren’t worth kneeling down for.
But the NFL front office, from Commissioner Roger Goodell (in photo) on down, not to mention all of the owners, were in a spotlight from which they could not escape. Unable to work up the nerve to discipline players who participate in kneel-downs – i.e., act in violation of official NFL game day protocol – the league groveled. This fecklessness set the stage for a $89 million, seven-year agreement announced last November in which the NFL, directly or indirectly, would bankroll radical organizations. There was no reason for this surrender. The league does not “owe” anyone, regardless of race or belief, money for political causes. It is in the business of football. Players on their own have the right to support political causes, but it is not for them to drag the league into the fray.
An official league policy regarding kneel-downs was inevitable. And yesterday, May 23, it became a reality. In summary, the new policy prohibits sideline kneel-downs during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”; players on the field must stand at attention. Moreover, it authorizes team owners to fine players who violate the rule. At the same time, it allows a wide latitude for players seeking to protest, including inside locker rooms.
NFL leaders believe they have arrived at a sensible compromise. League Commissioner Roger Goodell, putting on a game face, put it this way: “Clearly our objective as a league and to all 32 clubs, which was unanimous, is that we want people to be respectful of the national anthem.” Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II filled in the blanks. “Those who are not comfortable standing for the anthem have the right to stay off the field,” Rooney said. “We’re not forcing anybody to stand who doesn’t feel that’s within the way they feel about particular subjects. But those that are on the field are going to be asked to stand. We’ve listened to a lot of different viewpoints, including our fans, over the last year.”
Such words amount to spin. The reality is that the new policy, far from being a sensible compromise, is not sensible and barely rates as a compromise. Let’s look at some likely outcomes.
First, the policy contains no enforcement mechanisms. If players continue kneeling down during the playing of the national anthem, nobody will stop them. Indeed, some owners may encourage them. Already, New York Jets acting owner Christopher Johnson has vowed not to fine or otherwise discipline any of his players who use this tactic. Even owners likely to discipline such players, such as the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, will be walking on thin ground. They know that their peers, under enormous pressure from radical activists, could strip them of ownership on the basis of even the smallest gesture of “racism.” The media will be all over such owners in any sport. Just ask Donald Sterling, former owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers.
Second, the agreement allows protesting players to display their righteous indignation inside the locker room while the national anthem plays. That leeway is all such players need to continue their moral crusade. Media swarms of locker rooms are almost inevitable, though TV networks broadcasting the games will likely take a pass lest they jeopardize their lucrative contracts. What player wouldn’t want an opportunity to sound off to the media about How They Feel About Race, out of sight and out of mind from the tens of thousands of fans in stadium seats? While such drama would be off the field, it still could create quite a spectacle. And when such players charge in solidarity onto the field following the playing of the anthem, they are likely to get either a hero’s welcome or a Bronx cheer from the fans. Isn’t pro football politicized enough as it is?
Third, a number of players are saying that the agreement goes way too far in favor of the owners. It’s entirely possible, therefore, that the policy, weak as it is, will be modified or even cancelled. The NFL Players Association already has announced it will study the new policy and challenge any aspects ostensibly in violation of the current collective bargaining agreement with the league. “The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new ‘policy,’” said the NFLPA in a prepared statement. “NFL players have shown their patriotism through their social activism, their community service, in support of our military and law enforcement and yes, through their protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about. The vote by NFL club CEOs today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Chairman of the NFL’s Management Council John Mara about the principles, values and patriotism of our League.”
The people who run the National Football League are focused on profit. On one level that is a good thing. That’s why pro football has been so profitable. But that in turn has engendered fear of a loss of profit. Commissioner Goodell and the owners to whom he owes his job will do whatever it takes to maximize revenues and minimize costs. Fear of bad publicity and a player strike dictates their timid accommodation to the radical players. And fans increasingly are growing restless with these political theatrics. Last year, many fans boycotted NFL games, a fact that showed up in a surfeit of empty stadium seats and lower television ratings. If NFL owners want to do right by their sport over the long run, they must draw a clear bright line for all protestors and tell them they will be fined, suspended or released if they choose to mix sports and politics in noxious ways.