Throughout Roger Goodell’s tenure as NFL commissioner, he has developed a reputation as a leader who allows moderately divisive issues to fester. Whether it was expensive investigations, drawn-out suspensions or arcane rules changes, Goodell has come across largely as an executive who checks the direction of the wind before finally making a decision.
On Wednesday, a far more significant lack of fortitude was displayed in full for the NFL community and country at large when, in addressing the NFL’s new national anthem policy, Goodell attempted to filibuster, then rushed away from the podium after taking just three questions.
The policy requires “all league and team personnel” on the field during the national anthem to stand. All other personnel must remain “in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the Anthem has been performed.” It subjects individual NFL clubs to fines if their players do not comply, and gives the commissioner unilateral authority to impose “appropriate discipline” for those “who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”
In a statement, Goodell attempted to save face with the players he had just alienated by saying, “It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.” He did not, however, back up those words with action, instead allowing the owners who voted for this resolution to speak—and politick—for themselves in the aftermath. Even then, statements from owners such as Jed York of the 49ers and Christopher Johnson of the Jets suggest that this was not the unified front Goodell suggested it was.
The commissioner and the NFL have yet to respond to a comment from the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, who categorized Wednesday’s decision as a win for the administration of Donald Trump. The President first spotlighted former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem at a campaign rally in September of 2017, using the purported disrespect of the American flag as fuel for his fan base. Trump never mentioned that Kaepernick's decision to kneel was reached, in part, through a conversation with a former United States Green Beret. And if the owners thought their new policy would placate the President, they were disabused of that notion on Thursday morning, when Trump told his friends at Fox that players who kneel shouldn’t just be fined, but maybe “shouldn’t be in the country.”
Of course, neither Kaepernick nor any of the NFL players who have knelt, raised their fists or locked arms have done so to disrespect the country, the flag or the armed forces. It was always about letting us—everyone—know that, in their minds, what the flag promises and represents, most notably equal treatment under the law, does not accord with their reality.
“It was never a question of being unpatriotic,” Packers CEO Mark Murphy told NFL Network after Wednesday’s press conference.
It would have been nice for Goodell to use his televised time as an opportunity to voice these concerns, just as it would have been nice for him not to brush off a pointed question from The MMQB’s Jonathan Jones about what, exactly, will be deemed a disrespectful action during the national anthem, and who would make that determination. “The general public has a very strong view of what respect for the flag is, and the general arbiter will be the clubs and league, and we’ll work with the players and get their viewpoint also,” he said, kicking the can down the road.
Indeed, the rule changes Wednesday were a hallmark of today’s NFL—full of cracks that will ultimately foil the stated mission of Goodell and the owners to return the focus to football. A sampling of those issues:
• Teams such as the Bengals, Seahawks and Ravens that have been battling the perception that they are not signing certain players because of their beliefs now have reason to avoid such players: to avoid a fine.
• If owners like Johnson commit to paying their players’ fines for “anthem disrespect,” does it create separate layers to free agency, where athletes are perhaps uncomfortably selecting their destination based on the political preferences of the owner?
• The NFL is creating an environment in which it is forcing its own employees to stand at attention for the national anthem, while most teams will likely continue gleefully selling alcohol, merchandise and other concessions during the process. (York says the 49ers will not sell anything during the anthem in 2018). Along with that hypocritical stance, they will be watching each player under a magnifying glass to ensure appropriate “respect.” What happens if a player accidentally trips, scratches his leg or yawns? To what length will the league go to satisfy the “general public,” whom Goodell cited as his baseline of reasoning? If, as Steelers owner Art Rooney mentioned on Wednesday, linking arms is a sign of disrespect, then are Jerry Jones and Shad Khan and Christopher Johnson not patriots? How does one interpret the peace sign, laughter, a mid-anthem prayer, an index finger pointed to the sky to show love for a deceased family member? What if a player puts one hand over his heart and the other in the sky, balled into a fist?
• How quickly will the NFL kowtow to this president when, during his morning scroll through television, he finds a certain action during the anthem reprehensible that Goodell or may not? The NFL is under Trump’s thumb now—subject to his whim.
• Will the NFL police those fans and players who use the flag as “apparel,” which according to the U.S. Flag Code should never be the case. Will it crack down on the promotion of alternative flags, like those supporting America’s police forces and fire department, which have previously been on display in stadiums but also technically violate the code? Will it continue to roll out giant flags and display them vertically on the field, also a violation? (Section 8, Respect for flag: “The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.”)
Like so many of the NFL’s issues of late, this could have been headed off with any foresight. The NBA had far less clunky language in place regarding players’ behavior during the anthem years ago, while Goodell’s NFL became the Salute to Service league, ramping up military displays at games while gladly accepting promotional money from the U.S. armed forces, without the slightest clue that pigeonholing itself into a certain definition of patriotism might cause a major issue down the road. It was typical of the league’s fat and happy ways.
It is true that there is no constitutional right to protest in the workplace, but it’s also true that there is no collectively bargained NFL rule pertaining to the national anthem. That’s an issue Goodell and the owners will have to face down the line, which they’ll certainly do with the delicacy of a whipped Molotov cocktail. In the near future, they will have to confront Wednesday’s spineless performance in the face of a delicate, layered issue. What happens this fall, when midterm elections raise the division and rhetoric to even greate levels? The NFL has now guaranteed itself a place in the conversation. Wedged themselves in it. Too bad no one wearing a red, white and blue shield pin is interested in actually having one.
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