Faced with a public relations crisis, the NFL did what it does best. It made everything worse.
The league’s new rule forcing players to stand for the national anthem received 31 out of 32 votes from team owners (Jed York of the San Francisco 49ers abstained). Players can choose to stay in the locker room during the anthem, but they’ll no longer be allowed to “disrespect the flag” by kneeling without their team being fined. In one fell swoop, the NFL censored its employees and left some fans—including this one—wondering how many more chances it deserves.
The anthem rule change is just the latest screw up from a league that’s becoming known for them. In 2015, the NFL suspended Tom Brady following the year-long #Deflategate crusade that was based on circumstantial evidence at best. A year prior, the league suspended Ray Rice a measly two games for domestic violence. When video of the incident surfaced, the league was forced to revisit its comically lenient personal conduct policy amid public outrage.
And then there’s the NFL’s abhorrent handling of player safety. After years of denying football’s connection to concussions and underfunding former players’ pensions, the league finally reached a settlement and copped to the sport’s role in severe brain trauma. Only after years of scientific evidence, player deaths and a Will Smith movie did the NFL begin to take its concussion problem seriously.
Admittedly, the anthem problem isn’t as serious as concussions or domestic violence. It’s a social issue driven by America’s current political climate. But for a league that’s almost 70 percent African American, censoring its employees—who literally are the product—from peacefully demonstrating about social justice, isn’t just morally wrong. It’s downright stupid.
Playing the national anthem before a sporting event isn’t a legal requirement. At best it’s a brief moment of solidarity that makes fans feel good. At worst it’s a capitalistic ploy by organizations to make their teams and sports seem synonymous with patriotism. In the NFL’s case, it’s another extension of the league trying to align itself with the United States military, which it’s done fervently since 9/11 (even taking taxpayer money to do so).
The NFL surely hopes the new rule should satisfy those in favor of the protests by letting players skip the anthem altogether. But it doesn’t. It saps the protest of all meaning, while simultaneously making any player who doesn’t stand at attention during the national anthem seem less American.
There’s a weird irony in the NFL’s anthem rule serving as a sort of tipping point. Any true moralist would’ve turned away years ago after finding out about concussions or player bounties or unspoken domestic abuse. But we didn’t. We kept on watching, in part because the NFL suppressed the issues and conversations it didn’t want fans to have about them. But in suppressing players’ free speech, the league is starting even more conversations.