The press box usually is a placid place during any rendering of our national anthem. We all stop typing. We stand. We look around whatever stadium/arena we happen to be in. We start to get antsy if the performance drags – Paul Zimmerman, the legendary football maven known as Dr. Z, would time it with a stopwatch – but that’s about the extent of press-box movement. Usually.
Now we get out binoculars, scan the sideline, check the TV monitors. We count the number of players who aren’t standing and jot down their numbers. In sum, we take roll. Because we know that what happens during the national anthem will be bigger national news than the game we’re supposed to cover.
Example: The Packers and Cowboys, yet again, played a pulsating football game Sunday, but the day’s main NFL-related headline involved our vice president exiting a game in Indianapolis before it started. Our president then tweeted that he instructed his veep to leave “if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country.”
Forget football. NFL games have become venues for playing tit-for-tat. You can say that the kneelers started it, and technically you’d be right. (Although the kneelers were protesting what they perceive as a systemic civil wrong.) You can say that our president made it a far bigger deal by demanding that any kneeler be fired. But now we’ve come to a place where the debate – not that anything in our overheated society recalls Lincoln-Douglas – has descended into farce.
After Sunday’s loss, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who two weeks earlier had knelt with his players before the anthem, told the Dallas Morning News: “If you do not honor and stand for the flag in the way that a lot of our fans feel that you should … then you won't play .” ESPN’s Jemele Hill tweeted that companies who advertise with the Cowboys should be boycotted. The Worldwide Leader, which issued a warning (but no suspension) after Hill characterized this president as a white supremacist, suspended her for two weeks, apparently with pay .
In September, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded to our president’s fire-them firestorm with what seemed unqualified support for the men who comprise his league: “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.” This week, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the same Goodell wrote a letter to the 32 teams bearing a different message : “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem.”
Tampa Bay defender Gerald McCoy, among the NFL’s more respected players, told Schefter: “ I think it's gonna be an uproar if that is to happen because you're basically taking away a constitutional right to freedom of speech.” Titans receiver Rishard Matthews, whose half-brother died in Afghanistan, tweeted that he’d retire from the NFL if forced to stand for the anthem . He then deleted the tweet.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that a Twitter user going by the name “Jones smith” had expressed pointed support for Goodell 14 times. The tweeter was revealed to be Jane Skinner Goodell, the commissioner’s wife and a former Fox News anchor. She told the Journal: “It was a REALLY silly thing to do.”
It’s almost impossible to feel sympathy for the hoity-toity NFL, but this tempest has left the No-Fun League in a no-win position. Seventy percent of its players are African-American; the kneeling began as Colin Kaepernick’s way of protesting the killing of blacks by police. (Also of note: Kaepernick cannot find an NFL team willing to hire him.) The NFL, however, is not a non-profit entity. It exists to make money. ESPN’s suspension of Hill – ESPN is an NFL rights-holder – was a nod to commerce. Goodell’s invocation of “many of our fans” was a nod to reality: The league has become a flash point for something that cuts deeper than Deflategate.
Having said that, what’s the way up and out? Polls have shown that African-Americans tend to support the anthem protests, whereas whites feel otherwise . The players play the game, but they’re paid to play by money from TV, meaning advertisers, and ticket-buyers, some of whom mightn’t agree with the kneeling. What began as a gentle exercise of civil disagreement has slammed into the jagged rocks of money and politics.
Say what you will about this president – by now, we’ve said it all a thousand times – but he’s the world champion of outrage. (Less clear is what a descended-from-money billionaire would have to be outraged about, but never mind.) Outrage, not just his, made him president, and he clearly sees it as the way to keep being president. As Rich Lowry wrote for Politico: “After Trump got involved, the polling on the protests began to show the public more evenly divided. If you're Donald Trump and at 40 percent or below in the polls, though, a 50/50 issue works for you. If you are the NFL and hope to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, a 50/50 issue is a disaster. ”
The USFL owner who, in 1986, technically beat the NFL in antitrust court – though the settlement of $1, then trebled for damages, bankrupted the fledgling and debt-ridden league – has again beaten the bearers of Goodell’s precious shield. By playing to his base, this president leaves the NFL facing a choice guaranteed to infuriate some part of its core. If it bows to political expediency, it risks losing its players. If it stands with those players, it risks losing money and market share. All this over the national anthem of – pause for effect – the United States of America.