What Happens in the Next 100 Days Will Define the NFL

When it was revealed today that pressure from Donald Trump did indeed factor into the National Football League’s recent decision to require players to stand during the anthem, it became increasingly clear the lengths our institutions—from the NFL to the White House—will go to ignore the specter of our country’s racial injustice. 

Now that we’re officially 100 days out from the start of the NFL season, a time when many Americans will be literally watching the league’s every move, the choices players and league owners make from here on out is paramount. Instead of taking the opportunity to launch a nationwide dialogue, the NFL decided it would rather double down on its stance on the ongoing #TakeaKnee protests by fining or penalizing players who refuse to “show respect for the flag.”

A statement from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell outlined the new policy, declaring that it was “approved in concert with the NFL’s ongoing commitment to local communities and our country.” Furthermore, the statement claims that the league “will provide extraordinary resources in support of programs to promote positive social change in our communities.” Ironically, the push for positive social change is precisely the intention behind players’ silent protest against police brutality—a very real and seemingly unchecked threat that continues to wreak havoc on members of marginalized communities.

For the most part, player reactions to the new guidelines have been scattered. Some maintain that they will continue to stand during the anthem, while others have expressed indifference to the updated rules. While former NFL player and #TakeaKnee initiator Colin Kaepernick has yet to comment on the new policy, many have speculated that the rule change will only serve to assist the athlete-turned-full-time activist in his pending collusion case against the league, in which he accuses owners of preventing him from being signed to another contract. Meanwhile, some current players refuse to be silenced and have instead taken this as an opportunity to defend their right to protest and to reiterate—for what feels like the millionth time—the fact that there’s a very real agenda to deflect attention away from the actual issues that fuel the protests.

Even the shallowest analysis can support the argument that the NFL’s latest play is nothing more than a public recommitment to safeguarding its profits and its image.
Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin expressed a similar viewpoint, telling ESPN that the NFL’s sole priority is its bottom line. “I may be privy to some different information because I've been in conversations with Roger Goodell and Troy Vincent and the leadership of the NFL in regards to the Players Coalition and what we're trying to get out of that,” Baldwin said in response to the new anthem policy. “To me, this just further punctuates the tone-deafness or the disconnect between the NFL and its players."

Even the shallowest analysis can support the argument that the NFL’s latest play is nothing more than a public recommitment to safeguarding its profits and its image. The league along with many fans, sponsors and national leaders seems dead set on fueling the false and intentionally counterproductive narrative that the players’ protests are an attack on the flag, and ultimately, the country.

"What we've seen in sports over the last couple of years now is to paint the players as unpatriotic," sports journalist Howard Bryant tells NPR. "Instead of thinking about their reasoning—which is police misconduct and about supporting some of the people who don't have a lot of power in our country — it's been directed toward the flag as if the players don't care about their country when actually, they do."

Although the NFL team owners unanimously approved the new anthem policy, San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York abstained from voting because he wanted to hear more from his players, and recent reports suggest that he’s giving strong consideration to suspending concessions during the playing of the national anthem. Also, in another rare show of owner-to-player support, New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson won’t punish players who choose take a knee during the anthem. Johnson told Newsday that he will pay any resulting fines instead of placing “restrictions on the speech of our players.”

Despite all the moral outrage, the league appears to be well within its rights to punish or even dismiss players who choose to shirk its rules and assert their First Amendment rights.

According to The Washington Post, First Amendment rights can be legally sidelined for football players because the NFL is basically insulated due to its status as a private institution. Additionally, players can face disciplinary actions like termination for failing to adhere to the NFL’s rules.

Understanding all the moving parts only adds to the increased pressure that some players may feel to protest on the field. However, those restrictions don’t apply to those of us who have witnessed time and time again how the NFL publicly vows to emphasize social change while taking huge steps in the opposite direction. If it wasn’t already clear by now, it’s more than obvious where the league’s priorities lie, and it isn’t with the marginalized communities or even with well-being of the players whose talents comprise the foundation upon which the NFL thrives.

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