With their new National Anthem policy, the NFL risks alienating fans for the sake of ad revenue.
On Wednesday, the National Football League announced a new initiative to fine teams whose players kneel during the national anthem. The league revised their previously lax anthem policy in favor of a strict edict demanding that players “stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” as stated in the official rulebook. The social agency that players have demonstrated in the past three years has now been restricted by league owners in a calculated ploy to depoliticize NFL fields.
Players who don’t wish to stand for the Anthem will be allowed to stay in the locker room. But the same league owners who previously met with players and vowed to build what New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch called a “foundation based on trust, communication, openness and understanding” muzzled their workforce in deference to maximum profitability. The NFL has billions of dollars on the line with upcoming TV rights negotiations in 2022, and refuses to come to the bargaining table with TV ratings down 18.7% from 2015, the season before former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick transformed NFL stadiums into platforms to amplify awareness of racial injustice.
In the years shortly before Kaepernick began kneeling, the NFL used taxpayer money routed from the Department Of Defense to fund what Think Progress deemed “patriotic salutes” to the military before NFL games. The NFL had long borrowed phrases from the military lexicon such as “gridiron,” “field general,” and the “red zone,” but for a period from 2011 to 2014 the two entities were tangibly bonded. By 2015, the funding for those ceremonies had stopped, but patriotic pageantry — including the anthem — was already established as a formality of the NFL experience.
During the 2016 NFL season, Kaepernick defiled the perceived hallowed ground, kneeling during the Anthem. At a press conference, he told a reporter “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
His silent gesture infuriated some fans who seem to agree with Fox News host Laura Ingraham that athletes should merely “shut up” and stick to their sport. A 2016 CBS poll showed that 72 percent of Americans thought Kaepernick was “unpatriotic” while exercising his Constitutionally given right to protest. A Sporting News Poll from that same year alleged that a third of adults said they were less likely to watch the NFL because of Kaepernick and allies like Antonio Cromartie, who was cut by the Indianapolis Colts two days after raising his fist during the Anthem. It’s no surprise, as a 2014 study found the following trends in NFL fans: 83 percent were white, 64 percent were male, 51 percent were 45 years or older, and only 32 percent made less than $60,000 a year. Kaepernick was protesting oppression that this exact demographic sustains and benefits from, which made him a pariah, and ultimately expendable.
Even after Kaepernick’s contract expired with the 49ers and he was veritably blackballed from the league — a circumstance he’s suing over — the player protests continued. Then-Seattle Seahawk defensive end Michael Bennett and others sat during the Anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick. There was a brief period during last season when NFL owners knelt with their teams in paternalistic nods to so-called unity, but the gestures rang hollow. The week was symbolized by bumbling exploits like Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones chasing down a cameraman in order to make sure he was filmed kneeling. The moment exposed the owner-approved demonstrations as a desperate sham to both feign support for their players’ cause and placate conservatives by steering the purpose of the kneeling from resistance to compliance. They fooled neither the conservatives nor the fans who were in the players’ corner.
The NFL owners didn’t succeed in co-opting the anthem demonstrations last year, so they have resolved to do away with them altogether. There has been momentous criticism of the rule change, with Nation writer Dave Zirin speaking for many by calling it “among the worst ideas in the history of the National Football League.” In a scathing piece, VerySmartBrothas.com editor Panama Jackson proclaimed, “my Sundays will remain wide open for the foreseeable future.” He, like many former fans, is boycotting the league.
The decision to stop watching the NFL hinges largely on whether one believes in the validity of Kaepernick’s fight against systemic oppression. There are many former fans boycotting the NFL in protest of Kaepernick not being signed by a team, but there are also former fans who took the kneeling as an affront to the flag and tuned out. Owners have had to contend with local sponsors like Flemington Car and Truck company in New Jersey, who pulled their ads last season because “the National Football League and its owners have shown their fans and marketing partners that they do not have a comprehensive policy to ensure that players stand and show respect for America and our flag during the playing of the national Anthem.” They do now.
By siding with their conservative fans, who are 21 percent more likely to be NFL fans than registered Democrats, the NFL owners made the only decision anyone with an understanding of this country’s power dynamics could expect. Beyond being football owners, these men are the one percent. Their collective ownership of nearly 1,700 players is a microcosm of their privilege subsisting on a disenfranchised lower class. Any legitimate action to dismantle systemic oppression — and it’s lifeblood, capitalism — would start with themselves. In siding with Kaepernick and his fight, they would be betraying an inherent code of allegiance not to the flag, but to the dollar. That change of heart doesn’t seem likely for a group of owners who donated a total of $7.75 million to President Trump’s campaign. Meek Mill has said that he had to inform New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft, a senior owner, of very basic realities of oppression, which Kraft contended didn’t happen in America; not his America.
The owners’ privilege and economic insulation hinders their commiseration with the Black players that form 70 percent of their labor force, and the threat of losing their Republican core means it’s too costly to even try to understand. What’s left is a decision to silence Black voices that speaks as loudly as any in sports history to the symbiotic link between racism and capitalism.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.