By: Eric Shainock
The NFL National Anthem protests were born in 2016 – at first, Colin Kaepernick took a seat. There was some uncertainty into what the protests stood for. Many people felt it was disrespectful to those in our armed forces to sit for the national anthem. After a meeting with Nate Boyer, a former football player and a Green Beret, Kaepernick decided to take a knee instead of sit on the bench. In addition, Kaepernick had begun to communicate the meaning of his protests in an eloquent manner: he was protesting what he believed were racial inequalities and police brutality issues in the United States.
A few teammates joined in on the protests as well as a few players across the league. By and far, the protests remained isolated and not much more was thought of it. At the end of the NFL season, Kaepernick even announced he would stand the following season if he were signed as to not be a distraction with a future employer. What ensued would engulf the entire 2017 NFL season and make its way onto the national landscape.
Kaepernick never did sign with an NFL team. Whispers grew louder and eventually turned into conversations – was he being blackballed by the owners and the NFL because of his protests the year before? It didn’t help that President Trump traveled to Alabama on Friday September 22, 2017 for a political speech, only to go off on a tangent. He said, “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. He’s fired!’” In essence, the president had changed the conversation and said that anyone that doesn’t stand for the anthem is against America and our troops. By twisting the words of Kaepernick and those that followed after him, the message had been diluted. That Sunday following, hundreds of NFL players protested the national anthem, and in effect, the comments made by the president. He backed the league, the owners and the players into a corner and united them momentarily. The NFL had a signature moment to be leaders in the social activism space and many of the athletes and teams exercised their right to peacefully protest.
Ironically, an issue that had been relatively dormant had completely engulfed the NFL and become the storyline around the country. Again, the NFL and its ownership wanted the issue to go away because it was bad for business. Despite the players, time and time again, telling the media that this was a protest against police brutality and racial inequalities, the message was misconstrued once it got to the general public. A public relations crisis had occurred. Sponsors wanted the NFL to “get back to football” as did some of the owners. However, those in socially conscious markets, such as Seattle and San Francisco, have been supportive of their players and their desire to protest. At the end of the day, those cities would react differently than Dallas or Washington, D.C. Both sides agreed to come to the table to discuss what type of reform could be made so that the protests would stop, yet players would be able to advocate for causes important to them. In what was a landmark meeting, it seemed as if progress had been made on both sides when the NFLPA, NFL and players met in New York City in early October.
Then came the bombshell article by Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. It peeled back the curtain further on the meetings and conversations surrounding the NFL anthem protests. One line of the article stands out in particular and reignited the divisive issue:
The duo wrote, “As Jones spoke, Snyder mumbled out loud, ‘See, Jones gets it -- 96 percent of Americans are for guys standing,’ a claim some dismissed as a grand overstatement. McNair, a multimillion-dollar Trump campaign contributor, spoke next, echoing many of the same business concerns. ‘We can't have the inmates running the prison,’ McNair said.” Another public relations crisis was born. Whether this was taken out of context or not is difficult to know. The issue is that there was a long-held stereotype by some of the players that they were just “slaves” or a “workforce” for the owners. McNair’s comments only reinforced this idea. At a time when the league and its teams badly needed leadership to stay united, it only continued to fracture. About 10 Texans players left the facility after they found out about McNair’s comments. Most of the players who left returned to the facility and the remaining players were talked out of their protest by the coaching staff. To his credit, coach Bill O’Brien said, “I’m 100 percent with these players.” He is a coach who understood that his team was at a fork in the road and he needed to back his players or risk losing them. That Sunday, multiple protest options were floated around by the team and the media. In the end, the entire team outside of five or six players knelt during the national anthem.
As November approached, the issue flared up again. John Schnatter, Papa Johns CEO, said in a conference call regarding the company’s third quarter earnings, that shares of the company were down due to the NFL anthem protests and its lack of leadership. He said, “Good or bad, leadership starts at the top and this is an example of poor leadership. This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.” What made this such a polarizing comment is that some of the most outspoken owners in the NFL had financial investments and ties to Papa Johns. Was this an attack orchestrated by the owners or simply a huge sponsor pushing back on the NFL? To top it all off, Kaepernick has filed a grievance against the NFL for collusion. Owners and league employees are being asked to turn over pertinent records as a part of the grievance and this seems to be the tip of the iceberg.
At the end of the day – who is to blame for the decline in ratings and potential loss of NFL revenue? The owners and sponsors can blame the players for taking a knee and protesting the national anthem, but that seems like the easy way out. It’s true that the anthem protests raised a large amount of awareness for an issue, but what else did it do? Was actual change effected by the protests? Entering the 2017 season, the protests were relatively minor and had been stable. Only until the president directly attacked the league did politics enter the national conversation on a daily basis. Did the president know what he was doing by playing to his base and misconstruing the anthems true intent? These are all questions that will be answered as the NFL season continues as we see how sponsors respond and how the league and players work together.