To kneel, or not to kneel. That is the question.
It’s an issue that has become the biggest political football in NFL history, with implications so far-reaching that the league could find itself sacked for a huge loss if it doesn’t call the right play.
Kneeling during the national anthem, originally an act to protest alleged racism within the ranks of America’s police, has been met with counter-protests, from Vice President Mike Pence walking out when players knelt, to fan boycotts of games, merchandise and league sponsors.
That’s a lot of protests protesting other protests.
With both sides digging in deeper, and President Trump showing no signs of backing down from his position that protesting players should be suspended or fired, this issue will be in prime time for quite a while.
Here are some aspects being drowned out by the white noise:
1) Leave it to the Trump Administration to fumble a winning issue when it should have scored easily. Virtually every poll, official and anecdotal alike, shows a majority of Americans disapprove of NFL players kneeling during, or not appearing for, the national anthem. So what did the White House do to capitalize on that sentiment? It had the Veep very publicly storm out of a game when players took a knee. Had Mr. Pence’s action been impromptu, it would have generated significant support. But because he told the press that he would return to his motorcade shortly after entering the game ” thereby demonstrating that his plan was nothing more than a calculated gimmick ” his decision was roundly ridiculed. It was par for the course for an administration that can’t get out of its own way, even on issues supported by most Americans.
Political stunts don’t win hearts and minds. Genuine leadership does ” a winning formula for which the White House still needs significantly better coaching.
2) Despite addressing the First Amendment/anthem issue several weeks ago, some readers continue to misinterpret a key point about freedom of expression. So to reiterate: Unequivocally, NFL players operating during work hours do not have a “right” to protest, regardless of how important they believe an issue to be. People must understand that a player’s fame and very public platform, while powerful, does not put him above the law. In other words, he must follow workplace rules in exactly the same way that employees in every other profession do. Those who disagree simply do not understand employment law.
From uniform regulations to punctuality to conduct, teams set rules. Fail to comply, and there are consequences.
Bottom line: if the NFL or individual teams allow players to protest the anthem, so be it. That is their decision, and they, as private entities, and only they, have the right to make that call. Likewise, if they choose to mandate participation, the players would have a contractual obligation to comply. Therefore, protesting the anthem (or the protest du jour) is a workplace privilege afforded to players by the team owner. But it is not a “right.”
The term “my right” has been bandied around so often ” most of the time incorrectly ” that it has served only to embolden an already-entitled generation to think they can do and say whatever they please while “on the clock,” with no repercussions. They can’t.
3) Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who initiated the anthem protest last year, filed a grievance against the NFL, alleging that owners are colluding to keep him unemployed. It is a case Kaepernick has virtually no chance of winning, because he doesn’t understand that the NFL cares about only two things: winning games and making money. Sure, Commissioner Roger Goodell likes to dabble in politically correct, social engineering issues (such as transgender bathrooms), but his primary focus is making the league and its owners as much money as possible.
Translation: Owners don’t want to pay millions to a political crusader like Kaepernick, not just because his cause is extremely divisive to fans and spills into the locker room, but more important, it doesn’t win football games. That doesn’t mean Kaepernick won’t be signed (though let’s not forget that it was he who walked away from his contract). If he is, it’ll be because a team thinks it needs his abilities, diminished as they are. But Kaepernick’s banishment to the sidelines isn’t collusion. It’s common sense by owners, and a situation entirely of his own making.
4) It’s not without irony that the Confederate flag, which has been under withering attack lately, was defeated by forces representing the Stars and Stripes. Yet now, players whose freedom and wealth directly result from Old Glory, see fit to turn their backs on it. Protesting racism in all its forms is laudable, but they are picking the worst way to do so.
5) Commissioner Goodell and some owners, just weeks after basking in attention when so many teams took a knee, have abruptly reversed course. Now, they are contemplating a rule mandating anthem participation. If they follow through, it will be the right thing for the wrong reason, since their motivation is primarily about the almighty dollar. And for good reason: ratings and attendance have been plummeting, even before the anthem controversy.
Why? Mostly because the NFL has become an inferior product. Fans are sick of “all-about-me” players dueling to perform the most insulting antic after a touchdown (such as pretending to urinate on a fire hydrant), despite their team being down by 30. Add in steroid use, drug arrests, DUIs, assaults, domestic violence, and even murders, combined with fewer children playing, and you have the recipe for a dying game.
The league has done some incredibly stupid things, but the commissioner and owners are smart enough to know that, if they don’t handle the anthem issue correctly, it could become the sack from which they can’t recover.
6) Many protesters have been using the rallying cry: “If you’re not protesting, you’re not paying attention.”
So let’s talk about realities. Is there racism within some police forces? Absolutely. Is it endemic? Absolutely not, and nowhere near the levels of decades ago. But we must be honest that racism comes in all colors: white cops not liking blacks, black cops resenting whites, Hispanic cops not approving of some other ethnicities, etc. All racism should be purged, but it is critical to remember that the percentage of police officers falling into that category is extremely small, probably lower than in most other jobs.
Many protesters fail to see that their lack of credibility is tied to a narrative that changes oh-so-conveniently. If a white cop shoots a black man, he’s labeled “racist.” But if a black officer shoots a black man, he’s either a “sellout to his people” or, by default, the entire force is racist. Sorry, you can’t have it both ways.
When protests erupt after a shooting, two things are almost always true: A) the shooting was justified (and, as in Ferguson, had nothing to do with race), or B) it was questionable but legal, the result of an officer’s less-than-ideal judgment in a difficult situation. On the rare occasions when it is a bad shoot, officers rightfully face the full weight of the law.
Truth is, racism is almost never a factor in shootings because it makes no sense. Who goes on patrol with the intent to target black people, rough them up, and, when they move, blast away? No one. And that’s not just because it’s wrong, but because the price is too high: job loss; unemployability; prison time; wrecked families; and death threats. Again, that doesn’t mean the bad apples shouldn’t be removed. But focusing so much energy on “racist police” is largely a waste, as it deflects attention from more relevant issues.
Pushing for better training and procedures is one thing. But to broadly label as “racist” America’s men and women in blue, and the prosecutors who exonerate them after justified shootings, is inexcusable.
If NFL players took a knee to honor those who catch bullets instead of passes, and tackle criminals instead of millionaire players, it would be the best play call they’d ever make.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. He can be reached at [email protected]