Give the players credit. The first two teams to take the field for the 2020 NFL season—the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans— knew a lot of eyes would be on them Thursday night. After a summer of athlete protests, including postponed NBA, MLB and NHL games, they could have refused to play. They could have all taken a knee during the national anthem. But instead they played, and played it cool.
The Texans stayed in their locker room during the playing of both the national anthem and “Lift Every Voice”—also known as the Black national anthem. Only one player on the Chiefs, defensive end Alex Okafor, took a knee. Then all players joined arms—standing—for a “moment of unity.” From the league’s perspective, it could not have gone much better.
Will the President of the United States return this favor of restraint? It’s unlikely. His anthem protests engage his base and give him a chance to cover himself in the flag as only a faux patriot can. As more games take place, many more players will protest. His tweets have probably already been written. So the NFL will find itself in an impossible situation between now and election day. If NFL owners are going to support their majority of Black players, they have no choice but to stand against a president whom many of them personally support. The league—despite its best efforts to avoid it—is about to get very political. The choice for the league and its owners should be clear: Stand up to the president by standing behind your players. Even if they’re kneeling.
Yes, it is an axiom of sports marketing that politics are bad for business. It was Michael Jordan's philosophy when he refused to endorse a Black Democrat running against arch-conservative Jesse Helms in the 1990s, famously saying "Republicans buy sneakers too." And it was the playbook the NFL followed when Colin Kaepernick first started kneeling during the 2016 season. The protests were tolerated, but clearly not appreciated. (Anyone seen Kaepernick on a football field lately?)
Kaepernick's protests started without much notice and grew organically. The media took notice after a few weeks, but not much attention was paid until 2017 when Donald Trump—sensing the kind of divisive and racially charged issue that has defined his rise to political power—jumped in with both feet. "If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem," Trump tweeted late that September. "If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
The NFL and its partners found themselves in uncharted—and entirely unfriendly—waters. A league that makes its money by appealing to the masses found itself alienating two major constituencies at once. The president's base–including many white football loving men—found the sight of well-paid Black men refusing to stand for the flag an affront to their militaristic, "love it or leave it" form of patriotism. Meanwhile African-Americans, who make up a large majority of the league's players, found the league's refusal to stand firmly behind Kaepernick’s right to protest—and his subsequent black-balling from the league—akin to Laura Igraham's demand that Black athletes like LeBron James just "shut up and dribble."
By 2017 the sense of alarm in the boardrooms of the NFL and their partners was palpable. Trump tweeted regularly that fans should skip games and turn off their TVs. NFL ratings dropped significantly, though it's still hard to know how much of this was protest-related versus a league going through a brief starless period between the retirement of Peyton Manning and the emergence of Pat Mahomes. (Tom Brady can apparently only do so much.)
The league's owners thought they had found a safe compromise before the 2018 season with a new policy allowing players to stay in the locker room when the anthem was played, but requiring those who did take the field to stand. Players who kneeled would be fined. The issue was seemingly defused, with few protests, limited tweeting from Trump, and rising ratings over the next two seasons.
Then came George Floyd.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced a full-on about face in June when he posted a video saying "we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest." He ended the statement by saying "We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter."
So the question isn’t whether NFL players will kneel for the anthem, but how many. The 2018 rule hasn’t been officially revoked, but Goodell’s statement makes it hard to imagine the league will discipline players for on-field protests. Saints quarterback Drew Brees learned the hard way that even mild opposition to Black teammates' protests is not going to be looked upon kindly.
The question also isn’t whether Trump will attack, but when? His entire election strategy—from his Nixonian "law and order" theme to his affordable-housing fear mongering—is built on stoking white fear. The image of Black football players kneeling during the national anthem is tailor-made for his campaign’s home stretch.
How will the league react when the attacks arrive? This isn’t as easy a call for the NFL as it is for the NBA, a league with an overwhelmingly Black player make-up and a fan base that skews Black, urban and liberal. The NFL is a big tent, as big in rural Texas as it is in on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive.
This time, will the league stand firmly behind it’s African-American players? Can that be done without going toe-to-toe with the President of the United States in the middle of his re-election campaign? Are the league's owners really prepared to go to battle with a president many of them still support and who is popular in many football strongholds?
It should be an easy call, based on the league’s most basic truth: It can survive Trump’s tweets. It can survive another ratings slump (although Americans in quarantine are so starved for entertainment, that seems unlikely.)
It cannot survive without its Black players.