Seattle Times columnist Matt Calkins thinks the NFL protests are hurting viewership and says there are more effective ways for NFL players to speak their minds because this method of protest isn't really working

Share story

I don’t know how effective this new NFL anthem policy is going to be. I don’t know what sidelines are going to look like when “The Star Spangled Banner” blares next season. I don’t know how the majority of players feel about the owners’ decision, nor do I know what most fans think.

Here’s what I do know: It’s best for everyone if the anthem protests stop.

Sentences such as the one above are among the most polarizing in sports these days. One sect of the country seethes at the kneeling/sitting/fist-raising that takes place during Francis Scott Key’s tune. Another sect views such gestures as a necessary stance against oppression.

But nearly two years after Colin Kaepernick started sports’ most controversial trend, I’ve reached two conclusions regarding this topic: 1) The protests are hurting viewership; and 2) There are more effective ways for players to speak their minds.

On Wednesday, NFL owners unanimously approved a policy that essentially allows players to choose between standing during the anthem or staying in the locker room. No longer are players forced onto the field while the anthem plays, but if they go out there, protesting likely would earn the team a fine from the league.

Teams also are permitted to set their own anthem-related rules and penalties, likely meaning they could fine or suspend a player should he violate their guidelines. It’s a murky compromise subject to all sorts of interpretations, but the owners’ agenda is clear: They really want these protests to stop.

Can you blame them?

There are an array of factors contributing to the decline of NFL ratings, but it’s naive to think pregame kneeling isn’t among the biggest. A J.D. Power poll released last year said 26 percent of people who watched fewer NFL games than usual did so because of player protests. A Rasmussen poll released three months later said 34 percent of American adults were less likely to watch the NFL due to protests. You can’t ignore numbers such as those if you’re a business owner, and if customers are leaving you’re going to take action to try to get them back.

Those defending the protests often contend they are protected by the First Amendment, but that’s a flawed argument. The First Amendment — which I view as sacred, by the way — protects free speech and expression only from governmental intervention. It doesn’t make it so an employee is exempt from the rules his or her employer sets.

From dress codes to codes of conduct, workers are subject to expectations in companies throughout the country. And deviation from such expectations often leads to discipline or termination.

If your pizza-delivery guy knocks on your door wearing a MAGA hat, he’s probably going to be fired soon. If a cashier praises socialism every time she rings you up, her time is likely limited, too.

Folks can quit or strike if they want, but it’s not going to change the fact that they’re working on their employer’s terms. There is no reason for professional athletes to think it should be different for them.

Besides, if the demonstrations were to continue and ratings kept falling as a result, the protesters would just be hurting their own wallets. They might be OK with that, but some players not protesting likely wouldn’t be pleased.

And to those saying the financial sacrifices are worth it because these protests are opening people’s minds, I’d say … are you sure?

Look, I supported Kaepernick’s actions at first because I felt controversy was the only way to get the public’s attention. But somewhere along the way, his message got co-opted.

The theme behind the protests started with police brutality but later shifted to general racism, to Donald Trump, then to Kaepernick’s unemployment. They eventually lost their potency, and as people’s anger amplified, minds only closed.

Think about someone you strongly dislike. Now imagine this person trying to persuade you of something. Would you even give him a chance? Could any amount of logic overcome your antagonism toward him?

That’s what I started to wonder about the protesters after a while. Fair or not, they weren’t going to change the minds of anyone who despised their actions.

That’s why I don’t buy the idea that the owners are squashing the players’ voices. They’re just forcing them to communicate in other ways.

NBA players aren’t allowed to kneel during the anthem, and nobody has violated the rule. But that doesn’t stop LeBron James from discussing the plights of black people in America. It doesn’t stop Kevin Durant from criticizing Trump. It doesn’t stop Steve Kerr from speaking out against gun violence. And based on the TV ratings, none of this has the slightest effect on business.

From the Players’ Tribune, to Twitter to Instagram, athletes can reach millions without ever talking to a reporter. And if they do want to take some time with us media folk, they can reach millions more. The best part? Those millions are actually willing to listen.

Again, there is no way to know whether this new policy is going to curb protests entirely. There likely will be a tragic event or presidential tweet that will tempt players into demonstrating as the anthem plays.

But at this point, I don’t think that’s the right choice. At this point, the best way for them to take a stand is to stay on their feet.