NFL: Here’s Your Chance to Do the Right Thing (for a change)

I’m not a sports fan. Which teams win and which teams lose each week matters not a whit to me. Who scored points, touched down, gained yards, free-thowed, RBI’d or whatever, I could not care less.

But that’s not to say that I don’t follow sports. The intersection between sports and society is too big to ignore. Nor should it be ignored. Sports is a huge part of our social fabric (whether rightly or wrongly is a different topic) and as society has changed so has sports, and vice versa.

News reports of players being charged or arrested for various crimes such as drug possession, drunk driving, dog fighting, murder, abuse, rape, etc., are important, not only because of their frequency and sensationalism. (I once said to my husband that so much of the reporting in the sports segment of the news was about players and their various crimes that ESPN ought to team up with Court TV for an 24-hour all-sports-crime channel.) The reactions by various groups and individuals to these crimes and the penalties that are imposed (or not) for them reveal much about who we are as a society.

Likewise, the integration of Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson, the protest of Muhammed Ali, for example, are not just stories in the sports pages, but in the pages of our nation’s history.

And our society injects its politics into sports all the time: the National Anthem at the game, members of our military on the field, and God Bless America at baseball games after 9/11 are but a few examples.

So objections that players ought not inject their politics into the sports arena — that sports is somehow a “politics-free zone” is just one of the many lies people tell themselves when they are forced to confront uncomfortable subjects. Politics has always been part of sports.

Never more so than right now.

And so I read with interest Art Thiels’ column this week.

But I think that column has it wrong.

In that column, Mr. Thiel criticizes NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell over a memo sent to owners in advance of a League meeting next week to discuss players’ protests at NFL games during the playing of the National Anthem.

Thiel says that Goodell “had it backwards” when the Commissioner said the “controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”

The column goes on to say that conversations began because of the protests and that they should therefore continue in spite of the fact, or precisely because of the fact, that they make people uncomfortable. Theil objects to the statement that we need to move past this controversy.

Now, I know there’s a history with Roger Goodell, and I won’t pretend to understand all of the back story and nuances. So I must take his statements at face value.

Goodell is exactly correct when he says that the controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations about the real issues. That’s because our Divider-in-Chief has, as he does so well, turned the conversation on its head. Because of his tweets and the dividing voices of his mouth-pieces and and his political stuntman Veep, we are no longer talking about the underlying issue — that of racial injustice or the killing of so many unarmed black men. Instead, we are talking about whether the Anthem represents the flag, the country, or the troops. Or we are talking about what specifically the flag represents. And whether the Anthem itself has racist undertones. And what it means to be patriotic. And whether the First Amendment ought to apply to players on the field or whether they ought to restrict their speech to their off-field time.

In fact, we’re talking about everything EXCEPT the underlying issue.

So Commissioner Goodell is right to say that the controversy is a barrier to the conversation. The controversy of the Anthem and kneeling should not be what we are talking about at all. And so the NFL, the players, and the owners should take that issue off the table. If, as he says in his memo, he has met with the members of the players association and  they have developed a plan to advance the conversation, then we should wait to see what that plan is and how they go forward.

Here’s what I hope the plan is, and what I would advise if I had a voice.

I’d say: All players should stand for the Anthem. I’d say this not as their Commissioner, but as their ally. (I would not say that they must stand, but rather that they should.) Why? Because as I said, the act of kneeling in itself has become the controversy. Now that players have brought attention to the issue, and now that their message is being co-opted, players should move away from that aspect of their protest. They need to take back control of the conversation. And they need to advance the conversation in a way that removes that idiotic, made-up talking point: in a way that cuts it off at the knees, if you will.

Imagine if the Civil Rights movement had stopped at Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus. Even if a dozen, or five-dozen people had taken up her protest and kept their seats, it would have been easy to ignore the problems faced by people of color at that time. Seventy-five percent of the bus ridership was black anyway, meaning that the vast majority of comfortable white Americans could simply ignore the controversy if they didn’t like it. And that’s what white America is doing now, by turning off the NFL games. And the Montgomery public transit authority could have simply ordered its drivers to refuse to pick up riders who had protested. Protesting riders would have been in essence, “Kaepernicked.”

But instead, the Civil Rights leaders of the time were smart enough to move past that simple protest, by organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other measures. And that’s exactly what the NFL players need to do now. I’m not saying that players should boycott the games. They need to hold on to their ability to draw in their unwilling audience, but they need to stop letting the conversation be reduced to a conversation about the flag. If people — the very people who need to hear these players’ message — get to stop watching the game because of a convenient albeit invented controversy, then players have lost the very platform that makes their voice so powerful.

Encouraging players to stand would also take away the power of owners such as Jerry Jones to silence players under the despicable cover of preventing them from “disrespecting the flag.”

So going forward, players should stand for the Anthem, and THEN make their voices heard: by kneeling silently after the Anthem, by linking arms, by singing, speaking, raising fists, or whatever action individual players or teams believe will make their message clear.

And the NFL should give them the space to do that. Teams should agree to carve out a time between the Anthem and the kickoff (or whatever it is that comes right after the Anthem; honestly I really have no idea.) Maybe that’s what Goodell means in his memo when he says the plan that they’ve developed would “include such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues, and that will help to promote positive change in our country.” And I hope that that is what will come out of the meeting this weekend in New York. That remains to be seen.

I don’t have a lot of respect for the NFL and many of the decisions that they have made over the years. But if they can continue to support their players and those football fans for whom this issue is literally a matter of life-and-death, they’ll go a long way towards building my faith in them. Who knows, I might actually watch a game.


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