A prediction: There will be more sideline protests in the opening week of the NFL season than it would have been if the league had merely continued its cooperation with an alliance of influential players.
Congratulations to the NFL, which has managed to please almost nobody, rile up almost everyone, ensure that a fading controversy has re-erupted, and virtually guarantee that the debate over national-anthem protests will take on a new, longer-lasting and evermore divisive life.
Commissioner Roger Goodell’s goal in issuing the NFL’s ham-handed and tone-deaf anthem policy on Wednesday was to bring closure to an issue that has proved irksome to the league for the past two seasons.
How’s that working for you, Commish?
Players are rightly incensed that they weren’t consulted in the plan, which gives them the option to stay in the locker room during the anthem but would leave them, and their team, open to punishment if they protest on the sideline.
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Jets chairman Christopher Johnson — part of what Goodell termed a unanimous favorable vote by ownership that obviously didn’t reflect a unanimity of opinion — cut to the heart of the matter: “I just think that trying to forcibly get the players to shut up is a fantastically bad idea.”
You know what else was a fantastically bad idea? Not letting this issue fade out of its own accord, as it was in the process of doing. By the end of last season, only a handful of players were kneeling. In the playoffs, no one did.
It was barely surviving as a dispute, and working toward closure — until the league riled up its constituency. I will make a prediction: The number of sideline protests in the opening week of the NFL season will be far higher now than it would have been if the league had merely continued its worthwhile cooperation with an alliance of influential players.
As Seahawk Doug Baldwin, a voice of reason but also one of visible, almost seething, frustration, said on Thursday, “We were coming to an amicable agreement and relationship, and working toward initiatives that we wanted to see as players addressed. I thought that you would see the demonstrations and the issues within the NFL dissipate.
“But again, when you stoke the fire and inflame a gap that was really dissipating at the time, diffusing, you cause more problems. That’s why I say I think the NFL missed it.”
They missed so badly, I would submit, because they were deathly afraid of raising the ire of President Trump, who has pounced on this issue as a dog whistle for his constituency. The owners quake in dread of a presidential tweet storm against the NFL. And yet what they got for their capitulation was Trump’s outrageous statement on Thursday on Fox News that kneeling players shouldn’t just be fined, but maybe “shouldn’t be in the country.”
Even a non-kneeler like Baldwin got upset over that one, and I daresay his reaction was mirrored throughout the league.
To even suggest such a thing is about as un-American a concept as one can muster, an odd road to go down in a debate over alleged patriotism. It surely was in Baldwin’s mind Wednesday when he called Trump “an idiot, plain and simple,” the quote that took on a life of its own.
Trump’s words were even more inflammatory than last year’s blast — the first time the moribund anthem issue was shaken back to life — when he said at a rally, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.”
Baldwin wasn’t the only one who noted the contradiction in Goodell, in one breath, saying that protesting NFL players were unfairly portrayed as unpatriotic; and then in the next declared, “This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the anthem.”
If they weren’t being unpatriotic by protesting, then how can they be punished for doing just that? It’s one of many holes in this policy, not the least of which is the undefined nature of “disrespect.” At least one owner, Art Rooney of the Steelers, told the Detroit Free Press that even linking arms during the anthem constitutes a lack of respect. That might be news to all the teams, including the Seahawks, that did that regularly as a show of unity.
This is an extremely tough issue. Few would concede that point. The players who protest feel strongly that they must do so to highlight social injustice. And those who take umbrage feel just as strongly that what they perceive as disrespect to the flag is an affront to America.
In the middle, you have the owners, who have watched ratings decline after Colin Kaepernick launched this movement in 2016. This is a bottom-line financial issue as much, or more, than it is one of patriotism.
I’m in the camp of Baldwin, who was asked what he felt would have been a reasonable solution.
“Honestly, I don’t know,’’ he replied. “I know what they did was not it.”
I’m not saying that the NFL doesn’t have the right to put forth the policy it did. I don’t quite see it as a First Amendment issue, because the NFL is a private business. But Baldwin put it brilliantly.
“There is a difference between what you can do,” he said, “and what you should do.”