College football's pregame, including national anthem, offers better fan experience – so why won’t NFL follow it?

Dan Wetzel

On Jan. 8, 2018, President Donald Trump attended a football game, the college national championship between Alabama and Georgia. He didn’t stay for the entire thing, but that’s understandable since he had important work in the morning.

He was mainly there for the pregame national anthem anyway. During its playing, he appeared to forget some of the words, if he ever knew them, but that’s understandable too since many Americans don’t know all the words to the first verse. (Very few have even heard, or know about the existence, of the three verses that follow.)

Whatever. Trump stood and the anthem was duly respected, at least by his standards.

You know who wasn’t standing alongside him? Any of the Alabama or Georgia football players because as is the case with the vast majority of college teams (including all of the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12), the players remain in the locker room during the pregame anthem.

The reason is, generally, two-fold, and neither is about avoiding protests. One is tradition; the players never have been on the field for the anthem and no one has seen a reason to change that.

The second is what’s called “game presentation.” Colleges do a far better job than the NFL in pregame hype and part of that is building crowd energy and noise into a crescendo that peaks the moment the ball is kicked off. It’s expertly choreographed.

Osceola raises the spear for the crowd before he plants it a midfield for the NCAA football game between the Florida State Seminoles and the Florida Gators. (Getty Images)
Osceola raises the spear for the crowd before he plants it a midfield for the NCAA football game between the Florida State Seminoles and the Florida Gators. (Getty Images)

As such, it’s better to get the anthem and other quieter items out of the way (they’ll do the dull coin flip with a couple of early arriving captains). Then, through an elaborate process that can take multiple songs, videos and an extended amount of time – including rituals as diverse as touching a rock and running down a hill or following a charging buffalo onto the field – they unleash the head coach and team. The crowd goes nuts. They kick off.

It’s awesome. The passion and pageantry is, quite often, the best part of the game.

At this stage, there are no perfect solutions to the NFL’s anthem protest controversy. An epic failure by the league’s leadership has assured that.

The NFL is about to enter its third season of the issue hanging over it and it still has no actual plan. It’s currently operating under a “standstill agreement” that essentially abandons its most recent ill-conceived policy of banning player protests but allowing players to remain in the locker room which is, of course, a form of protest. That made no one happy.

The NFL can’t get out of its own way. Trump, meanwhile, is always waiting to whack the league like a political piñata. As a practical matter, nearly everyone just wants it to end, but any solution is, at this point, certain to enrage.

Again, there is no perfect solution, but if the NFL decided to follow the college model, it sure would be better than whatever its come up with thus far.

Change up the entire league-wide pregame protocol and leave the players and coaches in the locker room until after the anthem and other formalities. Then demand each team dramatically improve its team/player entrances to create a more electric and tradition-rich environment – fight songs or classic rock, hype videos with past greats on the big screens or some unique, completely over-the-top item.

If they can run that buffalo onto the field in Colorado, why not in actual Buffalo?

There’s a Sooner Schooner at Oklahoma, Osceola and Renegade at Florida State and Mike the Tiger (caged, but still) at LSU. You don’t run through the marching band at Tennessee, Texas or other spots and then have 100,000 people, many of whom have been boozing all day, calm down and be quiet. The opening bars of “Sirius” means something in Nebraska. The same for “Enter Sandman” at Virginia Tech, “Sandstorm” at South Carolina, “Thunderstruck” at Alabama, among many.

Dallas Cowboys players stand during the performance of the national anthem before a game against the San Francisco 49ers last season. (AP)
Dallas Cowboys players stand during the performance of the national anthem before a game against the San Francisco 49ers last season. (AP)

It’s beyond cool. An NFL stadium is practically a library by comparison, part lack of originality, part the insistence on introducing individual players (rather than just the team) and part disorder of how the pregame show is scripted.

NFL teams do often create a frenzy, but then everything chills out. There’s the anthem (per the 2017 “operations manual” all players must be on the field), there’s the anti-climactic coin flip (which, for some reason, must be held within three minutes before kickoff) and other assorted ceremonies.

As a show, this is run backward and, with all due respect to the anthem, the NFL is absolutely a show. The league has long draped itself in patriotism as a marketing tool and some teams even took payments from the Department of Defense to stage pro-military ceremonies. The mandate for players to be present for the anthem for all games came in 2009 in response to the preferred timing of prime-time television broadcasts.

This all could be remedied overnight, solving two problems in one swoop.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be criticism, even if it leads to a more amped atmosphere. There are plenty of NFL players who enjoy being a part of the anthem and may feel they lost something by having to stay in the locker room. Others want the right to protest during it. Both certainly have the right to complain.

Some fans will see the college football solution as the ultimate sign of disrespect. That’s reasonable also, although does that make college football an exercise in anti-American radicalism? Opportunistic media will be aghast – although it’s not like any of them would dare open their show with the two-minute anthem because they know a lot of the audience would change the channel in boredom.

Trump will almost assuredly rip it, even if he proudly participated in the exact same thing at that college title game. He’s going to rip anything the NFL comes up with.

Keeping players in the locker room, as the NFL did for decades anyway, and all these college programs in bedrock conservative places, changes the mechanics of the controversy.

Due to the NFL’s own failure, it’s too late for nearly anything else. Commissioner Roger Goodell blew this one badly. This at least takes it away. The anthem will still be played. The players can still protest or work toward justice, just not during the “Star Spangled Banner,” which as a messaging exercise has proven ineffective. The league can continue its admirable support for those causes.

For a few weeks, maybe it’ll be rocky. Take your lumps. It’s better than two years and counting without a clue. It’s better than letting this hang over the league in perpetuity.

And eventually, perhaps quickly, the entire thing will be over and replaced across the league by a far more fun and animated environment in the moments before playing some actual football.

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