NFL needs to consider stopping national anthem and White House visits to eliminate noise

David Haugh
Chicago Tribune

At this point, the NFL needs to strongly consider eliminating the playing of the national anthem before games.

To discuss canceling every future trip to the White House for Super Bowl champions. To rise above it all until America learns how to disagree again.

At this point, the NFL needs to do something drastic in response to the way the league has allowed itself to get dragged into a loud, illogical debate over patriotism that has devolved into pettiness for political gain.

The meaning of the anthem has been distorted, the significance of a White House visit devalued. The best way to stop the noise and avoid any further consternation is for the NFL to eliminate both time-honored sports customs, as crazy as it sounds for a league that wraps itself in the flag — except, at this point, it isn’t crazy at all. You can’t have an anthem policy that divides organizations and distracts attention from the game without an anthem.

Soldier Field would miss Wayne Messmer and Jim Cornelison on any given Sunday, but Bears fans would get used to it. And nobody would miss the weekly handwringing over whether NFL players stood, kneeled or stayed in the locker room. The anthem has become the two most misunderstood minutes in football, so just flip the coin, kick the ball and silently thank your maker for our freedoms.

Maybe other sports or other levels of football would follow the lead of the country’s most powerful league and stop singing the anthem and sending their champions to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — or maybe not. But the NFL has more reasons than any of its professional peers to take the lead and start a new tradition, the latest impetus arriving this week in the form of President Donald Trump’s farcical flap with the Eagles.

Trump disinvited the Super Bowl champions from visiting the White House after it became clear a majority of players wouldn’t show up, unfairly portraying one of the most socially conscious teams in the NFL as unpatriotic. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused the Eagles of trying to embarrass the president by planning to send only a “tiny handful” of players after 81 members of the organization originally had committed, according to a statement.

The scheduling details are minutiae. The magnitude grew only after the president decided to go ahead Tuesday with a “Celebration of America” on the South Lawn for a crowd of 1,000, complete with miniature American flags and a full Marine Corps band — but without the Eagles.

“We love our country. We respect our flag. We always proudly stand for the national anthem,” Trump said in brief remarks.

The tone of comments from Trump and Sanders cast Eagles players in a negative light. Despite the implications, no Eagles players took a knee for the anthem last season. Defensive end Chris Long, however, did give his entire salary to charity. Safety Malcom Jenkins, who spoke to a congressional forum on community-police relations, also raised his fist while standing for the anthem during most of the season. This was the wrong team for anyone to question its social conscience.

Like other NFL players who chose various methods, Jenkins wasn’t protesting the flag or the military. He was protesting police brutality and social inequality. He was exercising his First Amendment right peacefully, the way Colin Kaepernick chose when he first kneeled and the way every NFL player who followed did too.

The president’s broad portrayal of the Eagles as unpatriotic naturally upset Jenkins.

“The decision was made to lie and paint the picture that these players are anti-America, anti-flag and anti-military,” Jenkins said in a statement.

Back at the White House, Sanders painted boldly, with broad strokes.

“The vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans,” Sanders said.

Tim Furlong, an Emmy-award winning reporter for Philadelphia’s NBC affiliate, tweeted this Tuesday: “I’ve asked 6 of the ‘fans’ at the White House who was the @Eagles quarterback during the super bowl. Not ONE person knew.”

Somewhere, Nick Foles probably chuckled. The rest of the sports world just shook its head in disbelief at the latest in the ongoing reality show in our nation’s capital. At the NBA Finals, LeBron James predicted neither the Cavaliers nor the Warriors would want to visit the White House anyway. The Warriors rhetorically nodded along, with coach Steve Kerr expressing frustration many in the NBA feel, even in a league that hasn’t pandered to Trump the way the NFL recently did.

“The president has made it pretty clear he’s going to try to divide all of us in this country for political gain,” Kerr said.

At Halas Hall, the Bears reacted to the controversy after receiving a letter from four Democratic members of Congress from Illinois criticizing the team for the new NFL policy requiring players to stand during the anthem or stay in the locker room. The letter — signed by U.S. Reps. Robin Kelly, Jan Schakowsky, Bobby Rush and Danny Davis — expresses disappointment that the Bears “voted to silence the players you employ during this important national dialogue.”

Bears Chairman George McCaskey has declined requests to address the issue publicly. As an NFL charter franchise, the Bears have an obligation to lead from the front on league matters this weighty, though outside linebacker Sam Acho complimented McCaskey on his interest in inclusiveness.

“Football is a great representation of life,” Acho said. “You have to take a stand sometimes.”

The time has come for the NFL to consider making the 2018 season opener the day the music died by scuttling the anthem, sticking up for its players and shifting the focus back where it belongs.

dhaugh@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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