In 1985, with his Bears on the verge of a 15-1 finish, Jim McMahon received one of the first warnings of its kind from the Pete Rozelle-led NFL. If he continued wearing Adidas-branded headbands during games once Chicago reached the playoffs, he would be fined. McMahon, the rebel child of his era, forged ahead with his illicit gear. He was fined $5,000.
In 2007, a little more than a year into Roger Goodell’s tenure as commissioner, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher dared to don a Vitaminwater hat during the expanded Super Bowl media day festivities that would, in subsequent years, become a television spectacle for the league’s in-house television network. His fine: $100,000. Less than a decade later, Marshawn Lynch was fined $100,000 for not speaking to the media enough over a period of two seasons.
This is the NFL Roger Goodell created. Stars are propped up in forums invented entirely by the league, and dealt harsh punishments when they take ownership of their individual marketability and stray from NFL-approved branding, or abstain from the spectacle altogether. In this climate, where socks worn too low elicit punishment from the league, it’s easy to understand why the NFL’s very careful efforts to encourage but not require players to forgo their protests and stand during the national anthem have fallen on many deaf ears.
Critics of the protests and the NFL’s handling of them point out that the NBA has a rule on the books forbidding anything but standing during the playing of the national anthem. It’s a policy that seems counter to the culture of openness that permeates today’s NBA, where players appear much more comfortable speaking on political issues, and even coaches join the discussion, with men like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich recently slamming President Trump (see: Popovich’s “soulless coward” rant). But it’s precisely because of this culture that the NBA gets away with legislating patriotic displays.
In the NBA media universe, there are entire websites devoted to the various shoes that players wear in games, and the league doesn’t just allow that form of individual expression and branding, it encourages it. Players who don’t speak to the media are granted solace, and players aren’t fined for writing messages on their shoes. A team’s or the league’s public relations staff has less influence over what players do or say.
The NFL has been able to effectively manage the public-facing aspects of NFL players’ lives in large part because of the relative impermanence of players. The “next man up” mentality professed by coaches and players alike is a consequence of the violence of the game. Then there’s the literal lack of recognition of players themselves, a result of wearing helmets and facemasks while playing only 16-to-20 meaningful games each year. It creates a peculiar anonymity among men at the peak of their profession.
This was all well and good, until players began cultivating social media followings that elevated them from cogs on 53-man rosters. Eagles teammates Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long, two players invited to NFL meetings this week to discuss solutions to the anthem protests, have a combined Twitter following of more than 500,000 users, about 20% of the following of the Eagles’ team account. Websites like The Players Tribune emerged to take advantage of athletes’ demands to take their words out of the hands of reporters and media relations staffers.
Players earned their social-media followings during an era when the league office was trying to stamp out the sort of individuality it couldn’t manage and plaster on boilerplate branding with themes of unity and family. The anthem demonstrations, as much as they are about protesting racial inequality and sticking it to Donald Trump, are about a rejection of the league’s ramped up measures to legislate individuality. In this environment of awakening and rebellion—made possible by Roger Goodell—don’t expect the players to go quietly.
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