The National Football League’s gavel has struck again. The verdict has been passed. The precedent has been set and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has turned a billion dollar organization into a political stance machine. The funny thing is, they wanted to avoid the noise. The NFL, who has spent the better part of five years trying to figure out what a catch is, has taken a definitive political stance in an effort to keep politics out of football.
In a press conference held on May 24th, 2018, Goodell informed football media of a new policy, passed by a reported majority of team owners, that mandates that players stand for the national anthem at all football games for the 2018 season. The rule states that players who do not wish to stand can remain in the team’s respective locker room, but the message is clear: the NFL does not want TV cameras pointed at players who kneel during the anthem.
To properly analyze this statement and uncover how truly awful this decision is for the identity of the league, we must travel back in time to San Francisco in 2016, when 49ers’ starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid knelt in protest of police brutality against the African American community. Because there are around 20 live cameras on an NFL field at any given time, word got out fast and their action was sent to the peanut gallery of social media and a plethora of news outlets. The media frenzy clouded one simple fact: Colin Kaepernick did not protest the national anthem, nor the soldiers that fought to defend the nation the flag represents or the flag itself. The misconstruing of his statement is what led to this rule in the first place and now the NFL is facing a league-wide version of a problem they tried to stop at one player.
Since 2016, hundreds of players have joined Kaepernick in protesting. Jerry Jones, owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, joined with his players in their protest, kneeling and locking arms with players and coaches while the anthem played. This is the same Jerry Jones who, two weeks prior to kneeling for the anthem with his team, was quoted as saying that anybody who used their camera visibility for anything other than honoring the flag was “very disappointing.”
The problem with this rule is that it has already directly contradicted the very issue it set out to solve. During the press conference, Arizona Cardinals executive Michael Bidwill stated that the rule change was voted on with the intention of “put(ting) focus back on the game.” The question of the validity of this self-fulfilling prophecy is already answered. Instead of asking questions about the kickoff changes and celebrating the awarding of future Super Bowls and drafts to Arizona and Tennessee, we are questioning whether or not this rule violates the First Amendment right of free speech. Instead of honoring the flag, reporters will spend that time eyeing each bench and analyzing who is in the locker room and who is on the field. Thus, the problem only continues.
A fundamental problem with this rule is the nature in which it was passed by league owners. In the press conferences following the announcement, Goodell informed the media that the decision on the new rule was “unanimous.” Not only was this proven untrue almost immediately by several team owners, but it was later discovered that the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA), did not get to vote on the matter. In other words, the players had no say in the vote. There was also no “official” vote, according to League spokesman Brian McCarthy, and several owners immediately voiced their displeasure or intention to defend their players in cases of fines and punishments at the hands of the NFL, such as 49ers owner Jed York and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson.
Another issue with this rule is its hypocritical nature of the treatment of the national anthem by the league and by stadium personnel. There is no policy that regulates concession or admittance systems when the anthem is played, so while the anthem is being performed, people are buying concessions and entering the stadium. Why is that allowed but protest isn’t? Why can you buy a beer and wait in line to get into the game but players can’t use their platform? It all seems fishy or stupid. Take your pick.
My problem with this rule is not the intention because that is one of the few parts of this ordeal I understand. From an outside perspective, this rule does have a clear intention: put the focus back on football. The way the new rule goes about achieving that goal in no way establishes that focus, however, and in fact draws more attention away from football. The effects of this rule and the actions taken in response by both the NFLPA and team owners is far-reaching and immensely powerful. It is only in time that the true results of this ruling will come to light.