The NFL's players and owners find themselves trapped in a collapsing pocket of their own creation — and at risk of getting sacked by millions of fans across the country.
Two weekends ago, many team owners appeased their players by participating in national anthem demonstrations after President Trump's rather profane demand on Sept. 22 that owners fire any players who kneel. These demonstrations didn't go over well with many NFL fans — millions of whom are white, older, and conservative, and see any demonstration during the national anthem as fundamentally unpatriotic. So last weekend, some teams tried to innovate solutions — to no avail.
The New Orleans Saints knelt during the coin toss in their London game against the Miami Dolphins, which mostly puzzled fans. Were they protesting random chance? Baltimore Ravens players took a knee prior to the anthem, prompting a cascade of boos from their hometown fans who assumed that they would continue the protest through the performance of the song itself. Other teams stood — but demonstrated by linking arms and having statements read by the public announcer.
The nadir of this effort came on Monday night in Kansas City. The visiting Washington Redskins stood for the anthem, but three Chiefs players protested. Marcus Peters and Ukeme Eligwe sat on the bench, while Justin Houston knelt on the field. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, ESPN decided to carry the anthem live rather than sticking with pre-game analysis because of the mass shooting event in Las Vegas. The demonstrations infuriated many fans all over again.
Now obviously, millions of Americans are very much in favor of these demonstrations, which were originally intended to raise awareness of racial inequality, particularly with regard to minorities' treatment by law enforcement. But this is an extremely divisive issue — and millions upon millions of the NFL's core fans are furious.
The league's confusing and contradictory response to fan outrage demonstrates a lack of comprehension over precisely how they have offended their customers. Fan anger over the protests has eroded the NFL brand over the last year, but quantifying that has been complicated. The league has a number of issues that have contributed to that damage, including concerns over the long-term health of players, a perceived decline in game quality, and the NFL's mishandling of players' domestic violence incidents. The polling on protests has been almost universally terrible, however, and correlate with significant drops in ticket sales and television viewership since the 2015 season.
Owners seem to have assumed that fan anger was entirely focused on kneeling during the national anthem itself. In response, they pushed players to come up with different forms of demonstration — locking arms, kneeling just before the anthem, not showing up at all. None of it has calmed the fans' wrath, because none of it addresses the main points that have most angered them about the demonstrations.
First, the protests have become explicitly partisan. That isn't all the fault of the league and its players; President Trump criticized them sharply two weeks ago, telling a rally that the owners should fire anyone taking a knee. However, Trump was only responding to fan anger that had already built. Rather than simply responding in the press to Trump by telling him off, every team coordinated a massive demonstration during the national anthem that weekend, transforming a social protest that had involved fewer than a dozen players the previous week into an inescapably partisan demonstration.
NFL fans expect Sunday football to be an escape from the politicization of all things. There are many reasons for this — but a not insignificant one is that taxpayers provide publicly funded stadiums to billionaire owners and millionaire players for almost every team in the league. We are all footing the bill for NFL players' workplaces. Why should they become venues for partisan protest?
Furthermore, just as much as they value sportsmanship between competitors, fans value that moment of unity when we can put aside all of our agendas and come together simply as Americans. Any demonstration — kneeling, sitting, arm-linking — distracts from that unity. It steals that moment from fans, who wonder with some justification why athletes can't use their celebrity power to pick some other time for their protest rather than shove it down our throats after all the support fans already give these players and teams.