The NFL's recent attempt to appease its players through an $89 million contribution over seven years to social justice causes is succeeding. Fewer players (down to 20 in Week 16) are choosing to kneel, sit or stay in the locker room during the national anthem. The powers that be are no doubt breathing a sigh of relief after a tumultuous early season.
But before the image of kneeling players, booing fans and the worst PR season in league history fades from memory, a few takeaways are in order.
There remains a percentage of fans for whom the kneeling continues to mark an emotional turning point. Not that these fans have gone off into the night or lost all interest in America's most popular game. It is more about emotional attachment or, in this case, detachment. For this group, distaste for protesting players continues to translate into fewer games attended, fewer jerseys purchased, fewer hours spent in front of the big screen in the man cave.
One result of all the controversy is an uber-patriotic NFL. Pro-military themes that had in previous seasons (2011-2015) been paid for by the Department of Defense are now all the rage. It's backfill from a league that has seen how even a deeply divided America will not countenance (real or perceived) disrespect shown to those who serve. A few weeks ago, during a Sunday night game I barely recall, I listened to commentator and former Cincinnati Bengal Cris Collinsworth remind his viewers the kneeling was never about flag and country. But such an emphatic point raises the question of what it really is/was about?
Answer No. 1: The pig-sock wearing, Che Guevara-adoring, unemployed Colin Kaepernick was (originally) quite emphatic regarding his condemnation of the men and women in blue. The associated indictment of an alleged campaign of police brutality against African-American communities was raised as part of a narrative — notwithstanding the absence of hard evidence to back up the charge. (Here, exceptions do not prove the rule.) This is a part of the story Mr. Collinsworth failed to add. But it was an element of the original messaging — a theme that is as offensive to many fans as an anti-military message. Yet, this storyline has lost some vigor over the past two months. Perhaps a rash of highly publicized, horrific murders of police officers has made this charge a bit too inconvenient for the moment.
Answer No. 2: More recently, the rhetoric has centered on a more social justice-oriented platform — a serious and legitimate point, albeit messily presented. To wit: African-American kids who face daunting life obstacles — not least of which are often dysfunctional public schools located in our most depressed communities. Lack of economic opportunity follows, as does a laundry list of associated cultural ills: fatherlessness, homelessness, domestic violence and addiction. As a result, far too many “saveable” kids get swallowed up in our brutal criminal justice system. Any attention (and, more importantly, time and resources) that is productively directed to these persistent problems is welcome. Herein is also a test of good intentions: Players who give back and participate in these communities are part of the solution and should be appropriately recognized.
Besides the aforementioned cash payment, the NFL is also considering going back to its pre-2009 practice (in prime time games) of playing the anthem prior to player introductions. But fans are now accustomed to seeing the players stand on the sidelines while the song that reflects our national pride is performed. The proposed move is too cute by half. A sideline sans players would only serve to remind us of why they were absent.
What to think about Commissioner Roger Goodell? The hostility that greets him each and every time he approaches the NFL draft podium to announce early-round picks says it all. The explanation proceeds that his business acumen (most particularly in negotiating big TV contracts) is top-shelf. Of course, such skill translates into megadollars for the owners. This is the only explanation for the league's apparent willingness to pay the man such an exorbitant salary (up to $40 million a year with incentives). Do you think he ever bothers to consider why he is held in such contempt by the fans?
As I have opined on other occasions, the shield (and sport) will likely survive despite television-induced oversaturation, injuries to star players, concussions, bad officiating, indecipherable rules, exorbitant ticket prices, league parity, arrogant owners, tone-deaf players, turned-off fans and a private jet-loving commissioner.
Such is the pull of our favorite sport.
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Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is a former Maryland governor and member of Congress. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.