President Trump declared victory this week. The commander-in-chief is essentially boasting that he has vanquished the nation’s most powerful sports league, its owners, and its players. In other words, “Mission Accomplished.”
And in fact, the president is correct, even if his end zone celebration is a bit unseemly. National Football League boss Roger Goodell, by all accounts, will soon demand that players stop kneeling or otherwise protesting during the National Anthem.
The NFL, trapped in a box of its own making, is desperate to find some graceful way out. But there really is none. If, as expected, the league orders all players to stand during the Anthem, one player has already predicted an “uproar,” and many on the left will immediately scream “racism!”
We see it already. After Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said that his players will stand, the charming Al Sharpton said Jones has a “plantation mentality.” The rapper Common went farther, accusing Jones of acting like a “slave owner.” Even sports pundit Michael Wilbon, usually a reasonable guy, trotted out the “plantation” analogy.
Are these people serious? Unfortunately, they are. But they are kneeling on very shaky legal ground. Any attorney remotely familiar with First Amendment law will tell you that Jerry Jones is a private employer who can make and enforce the rules in his workplace, which just happens to be the stadium. Same for Roger Goodell and the NFL.
One player who has emerged as a very articulate spokesperson for the protesters is Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers. He asserts that players have a constitutional right to protest, which they do, but not in the arena.
Reid also opined on Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to leave a game when players kneeled. “That’s what systemic oppression looks like,” Reid declared. That’s bizarre enough, but Reid is severely misinformed when he says that President Trump called neo-Nazis “very fine people.” No, Mr. Reid, he did not say that.
But while the law is with the owners, far more important are the fans and the American public. The NFL absolutely and totally misjudged their audience, apparently thinking that football fans would just sit back, have a beer, and endure some protests before watching their favorite gladiators give each other concussions.
But football fans tend to be patriotic types, the very people who voted for Donald Trump. And while most presidents would have let this sort itself out, President Trump used his bully pulpit to, well, bully. It’s what he does. In this debate, as is so often the case, the president was firmly on the side of average Americans who despised these protests from the moment Colin Kaepernick took that first knee.
So what happens now? There will probably be some scattered protests this weekend, but that may be the end of it. The league has given very clear signals that it will soon ban the protests and demand that players follow league rules. Perhaps there will be some face-saving compromise under which protesting players can remain in the locker room during the National Anthem.
Players won’t like it, especially radical types like the revolting Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs, who wouldn’t even stand the day after the massacre in Las Vegas. Peters has since been caught on camera berating one of his assistant coaches, and he was suspended in college after throwing a tantrum on the sideline. Lovely guy, that Marcus Peters.
This entire episode could have been easily avoided if the San Francisco 49ers had simply told Colin Kaepernick to stop the nonsense on day one. But team CEO Jed York, heir to the family business, actually encouraged the malcontent quarterback. “I’m not going to tell the guys what to do,” York sanctimoniously said, adding, “That’s not my place.” Well, who’s place is it, Jed?
But Jed York was far from silent when President Trump criticized players for kneeling. He said the president’s comments were “callous and offensive,” and even employed that tedious and meaningless catchphrase “social justice.” The San Francisco 49ers, by the way, are one of only three teams in the league with an 0 – 5 record. To quote President Bush, “Heckuva job, Yorkie.”
This entire episode will end soon, probably with a whimper and not a bang. Some players will be angry, misguided executives like Jed York will demonize the president, race relations will be even more frayed, and millions of fans will be lost to the sport forever.
It just did not have to happen. Baseball, anyone?