The NFL has had nearly three years, including two full seasons without Colin Kaepernick around, to come up with a policy for player conduct during the pregame national anthem.
And during that time it has settled on …. nothing.
Now, after the league settled the collusion lawsuit Kaepernick brought against it, the issue is likely to boil up again for the 2019 season if Kaepernick is on a roster.
His lawyer is predicting that will happen, mentioning Carolina or even New England. There are other possibilities, too, of course. Kaepernick may not be a sure-bet starter, and there will be rust to his game, but even his most ardent critic has to admit he’s a better on-field player than a lot of backups or injury fill-ins who get signed during the season. Time will tell.
What is clear is that once again the NFL is dealing with a potential crisis (in its view) created wholly by its kick-the-can-down-the-road leadership. The league still doesn’t know, let alone agree, on how to handle players who want to protest.
The current policy is the same as the one around when Kaepernick first sat (and later knelt) for the anthem during the 2016 preseason to protest social justice issues. The league was caught flat-footed and unprepared for the reaction. It’s no different now.
There have been proposals, but no agreements that stuck. Likewise there have been various iterations, even as the practice has all but died out. Sometimes lots of players knelt. Sometimes they linked arms. Sometimes team owners joined them. Sometimes teams tried to stay in the locker room together.
There was a short-lived attempt to keep players disinclined to stand for the anthem to remain in the locker room by themselves while the rest of the team was on the sideline, but that was stupid and did nothing to diffuse the situation. Staying in the locker room was a protest in and of itself, after all.
All these weeks and months and kickoffs and nothing, just a rudderless ship that can’t decide what it wants to be and thus pleases no one.
There are two obvious routes here.
The NFL could say it is fine with players and coaches doing whatever they want during the anthem. It could say it wants to afford everyone their freedom of expression and the platform the game provides. The league could own it and tell everyone to deal with it.
Many fans would accept it, or even applaud it. And with the continued expansion of legalized sports wagering, television ratings would likely continue to climb. Eventually nearly everyone would tire of it, and not even grandstanding politicians could whip it up into much of an issue.
The problem for the NFL is a significant number of owners aren’t fine with allowing anything to happen. Fan backlash, even in dwindling numbers, is extremely concerning to the league. In settling the Kaepernick grievance, it acknowledged on some level that there was merit to the argument that it spent two years locking Kaepernick out of the league.
Sure, the motivation may have been to hide internal league communication from the public, but a settlement is a settlement.
The other option is to go the route of just about every other employer in the country, including, most notably, the NBA, and say that while at work the boss gets to determine certain conduct. If you’re a UPS driver, you wear brown and deliver packages. You don’t engage in political statements, no matter what the politics are.
The NBA is an extremely progressive league with outspoken coaches and players. They are active on social media, in news conferences and community work. About half the league, including mega stars such as LeBron James, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, routinely criticize President Donald Trump. It’s extremely unlikely any championship team will ever visit him in the White House.
Yet they all stand at attention for the anthem.
Because that’s the rule and it’s a sensible one. Say and do what you want on your own time when you are a private citizen, but this is what we do at work.
The NFL has not adopted that nor has it embraced the free-for-all. It has done nothing. A vast majority of the public has long ago moved on because almost no one’s mind ever gets changed, yet the NFL is still in square one, paralyzed.
If Kaepernick is on a roster, then what he does during even a preseason anthem will once again be major news … the kind of major news the NFL dreads.
It’s all the league’s fault though and it all comes back to a lack of leadership, from the commissioner to various powerbroker owners. NBA commissioner Adam Silver didn’t deny recently that he was approached by some NFL owners about taking the same position in the football league. (He’s sticking with the NBA.) That suggests not that owners necessarily agree with the politics of the free-wheeling NBA – which plays to a smaller, and seemingly a more politically like-minded fan base than the NFL – but that they crave someone who can solve problems and articulate the plan.
The league is completely lacking in that regard and now the issue, or what ownership considers a problem, is potentially returning.
Season Four. Square One.
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