Scared NFL Makes Epic Mistake with Anthem Policy

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterMay 23, 2018

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 10: A general view of some of the Seattle Seahawks as they sit on their sidelines during the National Anthem before the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 10, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Jaguars defeated the Seahawks 30 to 24. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The NFL has gotten things wrong before, but in the recent history of this league, it has gotten fewer things more horribly, disgracefully, stupidly, terribly wrong than what it decided to do Wednesday in trying to half-heartedly stop players from protesting during the national anthem.

In a statement released by the league, team owners decided that starting this season, players can stay in the locker room during the anthem. If players take a knee to protest, say, unarmed black and brown people being unjustly shot by law enforcement, commissioner Roger Goodell can potentially fine both teams and players.

Essentially, the league is trying to shove the protests out of sight by putting them in the locker room. And by fining players who want to publicly protest, it is also trying to make this a financial decision for players.

"We want people to be respectful of the national anthem," Goodell said in a press conference. "We want people to stand—that's all personneland make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That's something we think we owe. [But] we were also very sensitive to give players choices."

But as protesters like Colin Kaepernick (who, along with Eric Reid, started the protests) have said, they are not protesting the anthem or the military; they are using the anthem to bring attention to racial injustice and the issue of police abuse of black and brown citizens.

Now, because of the NFL's ineptitude, the anthem controversy will be around a long time, and it will be messy, and ugly, and divisive. The union and the league will likely go to war, and swaths of America will fight over it.

Within hours of the league's announcement, the NFLPA had fired back:

Why is the NFL handling this so poorly, crafting a policy based on fear, not practicality? The answer remains clear, according to a variety of league sources: an intense fear of President Donald Trump.

This is a fact. This is the truth. This is the core basis for the NFL's decision. This has been told to me before, and it was reiterated by several people Wednesday.

"Our league," one team official said, "is f--king terrified of Trump. We're scared of him."

What does the NFL fear? It fears boycotts of games. It fears people not watching its product on television. It fears people not buying its products.

There is, however, no proof that any of this would happen.

In fact, the NFL recently signed a streaming deal with Verizon for $2 billion. The NFL's bottom line remains fat and happy.

The NFL's actions reflect something scary about America now. Everything is transactional. Social justice. The plight of civil rights of certain American citizens. All of it is secondary to money, and fear of a boorish president.

After all, most teams won't be shutting down their concession stands (aside from the Niners) as the anthem plays.

Yet that fear of losing money thanks to an angry fanbase, stirred up by the president and his supporters, clearly drove this decision.

And it didn't have to. Almost no one was talking about the protests any longer. Now, we will be, and we will continue to do so for months, if not longer.

In its statement on the new rules, the league said:

Pay close attention to No. 6. It seems the league not only can fine teams, but since players count as "league personnel," it can also fine individuals.

More troubling, who decides what constitutes disrespect of the anthem? Steelers owner Art Rooney told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that raising a fist, or even linking arms, during the anthem constitutes a lack of respect. That is patently absurd.

The NFL could have solved this issue by doing nothing. Again, the issue had died down.

Then, if players continued to kneel, the league could have used its incredible reach—and marketing ability—to launch a campaign fully explaining what the players were doing and why

If there's one thing I've learned about the NFL, it is this: The league is never shy about defending itself. But on this issue, it is, and it's because of Trump and the media entities that openly support him.

One thing all of us should try to remember is why, in the first place, players like Kaepernick and others decided to kneel or raise a fist.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

It's because of people like Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown, who was tased during a seemingly minor parking problem. Or Stephon Clark, who was shot by Sacramento police in his backyard while only holding a cellphone. Or Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Or an unarmed man in Miami, hands up, comforting an autistic man, only to be shot by police. There is a legion of others.

In September, during a speech in Alabama, Trump called NFL players sons of bitches over their protests. This incensed players, but it frightened owners and the league office, according to multiple sources at the time. A feeling grew among owners that the attacks on the NFL from Trump would never subside.

Now, months later, the NFL has caved to fear and ugliness in what is now one of the lowest points in NFL history.

           

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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