In its own, typically blinkered and inimitable fashion, the NFL decided to dig in its heels on Wednesday, wrapping itself in the flag, and requiring players who are on the field to stand during the national anthem or face a series of penalties.
It’s a course of action that will fail, and spectacularly so. Ever since Colin Kaepernick—who has since been banished and is currently suing the NFL for collusion—began taking a knee, the league has wrung its hands, hemming and hawing as they tried to devise a means to stanch the tide of largely bad-faith criticism. In the end, they chose to silence its labor force. But what the NFL can’t seem to understand is that they are being Gamergated, just like ESPN was when it kowtowed to Jemele Hill’s loudest and dumbest critics.
Those selfsame forces, largely on the right and led by the president, have turned what was a beloved institution for the reddest of red states into the latest foil in the perma-culture war. Regardless of how anthem behavior is regulated, those forces will never stop howling about disrespect for the troops or the flag or mom’s apple pie, no matter how many of its employees the NFL tries to cram into a locker and put out of sight, in this case, literally.
Here’s the NFL’s newest solution to the grave and pressing matter of NFL players speaking out against systemic racism and the state-sanctioned violence perpetrated by law enforcement: Previously, all personnel were required to be on the field while someone belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with no further specifications regarding their behavior. That is, if someone wanted to take a knee, the NFL couldn’t do squat.
Now the game operations manual has been adjusted, after two days of meetings between NFL owners and the league in Atlanta. Anyone who prefers not to place a hand on his heart during the anthem can remain in the locker room, but if they step on the field, they are required to “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.”
Teams will be allowed to set their own standards and mete out whatever punishments they see fit, but if the new rule is violated, the league will bring down the hammer on the clubs themselves, regardless. Naturally, the game operations manual is not considered part of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), which is why neither the union nor any player had a say in today’s adjustment of the rules.
Which exact gestures will now be deemed disrespectful? As befitting a league with a byzantine, borderline-Talmudic rulebook, so far the NFL is declining to provide a clear definition. This is by design, because it gives Commissioner Roger Goodell the authority to dole his brand of discipline and define the meaning of “respect” however he sees fit. These powers are enshrined in the NFL’s bylaws, thanks in no small part to the previously mentioned feeble and feckless union. But that degree of freedom means the commissioner could, in theory, boot a player from the game for a longer period than if he were to be accused of committing an act of domestic violence.
It’s not hard to imagine how this will play out. From the NFL’s perspective, in the best-case scenario, all dissidents will remain snugly tucked away in the bowels of the stadium while someone hits the high note during “rockets’ red glare,” thus ensuring a total lack of kneeling, fist-raising, or any manner of flag-sullying. Problem solved, right? Of course not. Is there an innocent soul left still laboring under the delusion that all the bad faith actors—the Clay Travises, the entire far-right media ecosystem, and Donald Trump—will be in any way satisfied?
No. They’ll just move the goalposts. Remaining in the locker room will be seen as equally insulting to the troops. Players still will be targeted by fans and pundits alike and those who profit from doing so will screech that the NFL is still positioning itself as antithetical to their values, somehow. Should a player dare to buck the precious, sanctified rules and continue to protest, the chorus will grow even louder, demanding even more stringent punishments, fines, and perhaps being bodily dragged from the stadium, to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist at all.
Then things could really get really tricky. At least one owner said the new rules were specifically crafted to avoid conflicting with the current CBA. But per Michael McCann, Sports Illustrated’s legal analyst, it’s not at all clear that the new anthem provisions would stand up to a legal challenge, should things degenerate to the point where the league is dragged into court over this issue for a third time. Hell, the current policy is broad enough that it could be used to justify a future blacklisting.
Make no mistake: While the NFL is framing this as some sort of “compromise,” it isn’t, just as the NFL’s previously bungled PR attempt, a show of “unity,” was little more than a ham-fisted attempt to quelch dissent. Yes, the NFL had reportedly batted around the idea of 15-yard penalties as a punishment. In that light, “give triggered NFL fans a safe space or else” is better than turning the refs into anti-activist cops. But despite Goodell’s insistence in his statement today that anyone who viewed the protesters as in any way unpatriotic were misguided, he very much confirmed the false notion that NFL players had behaved disrespectfully to begin with, giving legitimacy to the keening hordes.
As Chris Long, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive end and one of the few white NFL players to join the protests, wrote on Twitter, “This is fear of a diminished bottom line. It’s also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism.
“These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it,” he continued. “It also lets you, the fan, know where our league stands.”
Anyone paying attention knew where the league and the owners stood. Though the New York Jets’ chairman and co-owner, Christopher Johnson, has promised to pay any fines players incur should they continue to protest, Stephen Ross, Bob McNair, and the NFL’s shadow power broker, Jerry Jones, have all made it clear that they are, to a certain degree, in lockstep with the president. Leaked audio obtained by The New York Times revealed that more than a few owners just want all this to go away, if only to dodge the next triumphalist anti-NFL tweet from the Oval Office. (Which, good luck with that.)
That said, all of these diversionary tactics worked, if in a deeply cynical way. Any real discussion of police brutality has been more or less elbowed out of the public domain, again, despite Goodell’s insistence today that “awareness” of social justice issues had been raised. Not when activist efforts to effect reforms to the criminal justice system by players like Malcolm Jenkins have been reduced to mere footnotes.
This would all be hilarious if it weren’t so depressing and stupid, given the league’s long and sordid history of receiving millions in taxpayer dollars in exchange for paid displays of jingoistic patriotism (PDF). The NFL has always endorsed a political position, and a fairly capital-c Conservative one at that. But as was the case with ESPN, a corporate giant is lacking foresight, and failing to recognize that for Trump and all the MAGA chuds, keeping a segment of the population in a state of near-perpetual outrage was and is always the sole goal.
Beyond a protracted legal battle, though, there is a far simpler solution, and it lies with the players themselves. It would require an incredible and unprecedented act of solidarity, but if every single NFL player came out and took a knee and made it clear they would not stop, fines and possible suspensions notwithstanding, what recourse would be available to Goodell and the owners?
If stars like (don’t laugh) Tom Brady locked arms, stood up to this cabal of billionaire bullies, and refused to let the NFL get away with this profit-guarding nonsense, it would end quickly. Maybe then the NFL would grudgingly come to accept that its plummeting TV ratings had far more to do with an overexposed, subpar product and cord-cutting than any (false) question of a political backlash, and more to the point, that the backlash is never going away, regardless of what they do.
The players have all the power here. The twofold question is: Do they know it, and will they use it?