Tag the Dallas Cowboys with “politically correct” for their actions Monday night. The National Football League staged fifteen games last weekend – and thirty protests – but it wasn’t until the final contest Monday night where we saw something bordering on considerate. With the Cowboys, we witnessed unified “free speech” and regard for the American flag; neither action compromising the intent of the other.
If you missed Monday night’s game you would’ve been misled by Tuesday’s headlines, including, “Jerry Jones Leads Cowboys in Taking a Knee…”. Jones – the Cowboys’ owner, president, and general manager – did take a knee, but he did so alongside his players and coaches; a unified show of disagreement with President Trump’s comments. More importantly, Dallas knelt prior to the national anthem, so as not to confuse protest with allegiance to country. During the anthem, the team stood with arms locked together and helmets removed. I’m okay with that approach. Even President Trump is okay with that approach.
As for the other twenty-nine teams, it was myriad versions of disunity and disrespect before kickoffs. (NPR’s website lists them all here). Random players knelt during the anthem while other stood – a visibly mixed message. Owners and coaches stayed away for the most part, suggesting the same divisiveness alluded to by the President. The Pittsburgh “Kneelers”, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans – in total contempt of country – stayed off the field entirely during the national anthem.
Athletes exercising their right to free speech in sports venues is a distraction and nothing more, at least to the average fan. The football field is simply not an effective platform for politics. I, along with millions of others, tune in to watch the game, so anything outside the action itself (i.e. commercials) is irritating. It’s the same reason I no longer watch awards shows; I don’t want the inevitable helping of political commentary along with the acceptance speeches. The day the same thing happens in movie theaters is the day I buy my last ticket. Sports and other entertainment venues should be escapes from the endless newsreel of the real world.
With the NFL, I’d argue the protests are not just irritating, but damaging. Based on the number of emails Sports Illustrated received from disgruntled fans after last weekend, viewership is already taking a significant hit. The NFL can’t afford to lose viewership. The league is having enough trouble dealing with losses of sponsorship, and lawsuits tied to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Forget about viewers; one of these days the NFL might not have players.
Tyler Eifert, a tight end for the Cincinnati Bengals and a graduate of my alma mater Notre Dame, contributed one of the better player perspectives in his essay, “Why I Stand“. His words could’ve been mine when he said, “I am not questioning anyone’s reasons or rights to protest, but instead the method. This entire protest about raising awareness for racial inequality has gotten lost in the media and turned into a debate about whether to sit or stand for the national anthem… I stand because I love my country. I stand because I want to honor the people putting their lives on the line for me on a daily basis…” Tyler Eifert gets it. The American flag stands for the freedom allowing him to play football in the first place.
Kneeling in front of the flag (or absence from the field altogether) is trickling into other sports as well. Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first pro baseball player to join the anthem protests by taking a knee before his team’s game. The Minnesota Lynx joined arms on the court before the WNBA finals began on Sunday, while the Los Angeles Sparks returned to their locker room during the anthem. Even high-schoolers are kneeling. Until we see something more constructive, these actions have little merit.
NFL player protests will cease, especially if franchise owners enforce a league-sanctioned code of conduct they currently choose to ignore. The country is no less divided because of these demonstrations. Rockies baseball manager Bud Black says, “…for me to be arrogant enough to say that the other half of the country is wrong or that I’m definitely right, I think (that) is the wrong thing to do. … I’m proud to be an American. And I’m also thankful to have the First Amendment, so I see it both ways. I have my opinions, but that does not mean they are right, so I’ll keep them to myself.”
I wish NFL players would keep their opinions to themselves, at least on game days. Sports fans are switching off their televisions in record numbers, including me. I have better things to do with my Sunday afternoons.
Fade to black.