The NFL Panders to Trump

By surrendering to the president, the league continues to throw its players under the bus

Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick take a knee. Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Colin Kaepernick is suing the National Football League for colluding against him, and his case keeps improving. One day before the league announced its stupefying plan to suppress the protests against racial injustice, documents and testimony uncovered by Kaepernick's lawsuit revealed that teams consider him talented enough to be a starting quarterback in the league. The argument that Kaepernick, now 30, isn't fit to play in the NFL was already bunk. Now we see that teams were willing to make themselves worse, in some cases, all to ensure that he didn't have a job.

This is how far the NFL has gone to make sure that fans don't receive overt reminders of white supremacy as they try to enjoy the game. Kaepernick, and those players who have followed his lead, have always been clear that they sought to bring attention to the disproportionate police brutality that African Americans suffer, along with other varied symptoms of this nation's original sickness. To dispel a Trumpian myth: This has never been a protest of the American flag. This truth has been conveyed ad infinitum to Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners of the 32 teams, including in private meetings last fall with a few top NFL athletes. Yet almost immediately after finalizing a $90 million partnership with players to aid social justice efforts, the league has again presented a willful misinterpretation of the protests – and in its official rules, no less.

In league meetings on Wednesday, the owners decreed that players could no longer kneel or exhibit any other gesture during the national anthem that, for whatever reason, precedes each game. According to the new rules, athletes may either remain in the locker room or stand on the field at attention, but teams and league personnel will face fines should any player demonstrate during the anthem. While a 15-yard penalty for violations had been proposed this week, the final rule assesses fines to the offending team.

The rules were met with considerable resistance. New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson – brother of Woody, President Trump's ambassador to the United Kingdom – quickly declared that he would pay the fines any Jets player was assessed for protesting, offering a roadmap to any team seeking to kneecap the new regulations. The NFL Players Association's statement ripped Goodell and New York Giants owner John Mara by name. "What NFL owners did today was thwart the players' constitutional rights to express themselves and use our platform to draw attention to social injustices like racial inequality in our country," wrote Malcolm Jenkins, the free safety for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, in a statement. "Everyone loses when voices get stifled." His teammate, Chris Long, who had demonstrated support for Jenkins during his prior sideline protests, wrote on Twitter that the new rules represented "a fear of a diminished bottom line" and "also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation."

In that light, one NFL team source told Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman "Our league is f--king terrified of Trump. We're scared of him." But given the league's lucrative new Verizon video-streaming deal and $14 billion in revenue in 2017, with the prospect for an even higher total this upcoming season, what on earth does the NFL have to fear from Trump, aside from a few mean tweets? By continuing to give into Trump, the NFL only encourages him to bully its players further.

The phrasing is quite Orwellian: "All team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and Anthem." This language belies what Goodell declared in a statement announcing the new rules: "It is unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case." That perception was not a result of the protests; the president and others who deliberately sought to mask authoritarianism with empty performances of allegiance created it. In a Fox News interview on Thursday morning, Trump said, "I don't think people should be staying in locker rooms, but still I think it's good. You have to stand – proudly – for the national anthem or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there, maybe you shouldn't be in the country."

And why does the league fall for this? One main concern appears to be the maintenance of the military marketing that has become endemic to every American sporting event. The defense of the pregame (and at times, in-game) pageantry is most understandable within the context of the seemingly irreversible change the country has undergone in the last several years. The Stars and Stripes, already lending its colors to three major-league insignias, has itself become a sports logo for a good reason. Patriotism, or what we too often mistake for it, is now a marketable commodity for teams and leagues. To understand what is happening in the NFL right now, you have to go back to the fear mongering that emerged after September 11th, 2001.

As ESPN journalist and author Howard Bryant notes in his forthcoming book The Heritage, the nexus of the military and law enforcement "has rarely been framed as a political response to perhaps the worst day in modern American history" – yet it is unavoidably political. The sports world, he writes, "embraced jingoism in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks but was unequipped to deal with complexity at home. It was easy to throw the word patriotism around but not quite so easy to tell just who the heroes really were." To boot, there were and still are social penalties assessed for not adhering to the new script. Heaven forbid a fan tries to kneel as a flag is unfurled over the length of a football field, or questions why the anthem is being played before a sporting event at all.

Protests are designed to make the intended audience uncomfortable. The few minutes during a national anthem may be the only time when NFL players have the chance to reach the league's predominantly white audiences with a message of social justice. It is as good a time as any to witness a truly patriotic act: players who love America, and are pushing the country to fulfill its promise of full citizenship to black and brown people. The league tried ponying up millions to buy their silence, and now has created a set of hackneyed rules, all the while eroding trust among both black players and fans. To think, if only the NFL addressed racism with this kind of urgency!