The NFL's impossible choice: Players or fans?

Two Sundays ago, fewer than 10 players knelt prior to NFL games. This past Sunday, that number ballooned to more than 250.

With one comment, the President of the United States turned what was effectively a fringe movement with fading support into a full-blown rally. For the NFL, this is possibly the beginning of what could be the most difficult and crucial decision commissioner Roger Goddell will ever have to make.

In one ear he has at least a faction of players clamoring for the league’s involvement in social justice reform. In the other, a sizeable audience screaming, “Just stick to football!”

It’s a figurative minefield, one that Goodell must navigate expertly, lest he alienate his employees, his bill-paying audience or both.

Prior to Trump calling any NFL player kneeling during the national anthem a son of a bitch, four players sent a memo to Goodell asking for the league to get involved in “Player Activism for Racial Equality and Criminal Justice Reform.” Among the issues the effort seeks to address are “police transparency/accountability, bail reform, criminalization of poverty [and] mass incarceration.” The memo directly asks the NFL for its support “to achieve our goal of strengthening the community,” laying out several specifics:

• Working on “meaningful legislation” on the “need” for criminal justice reform.

• Financial support for local grassroots and community-based organizations that “are doing the real work to impact criminal justice reform.”

• Media opportunities to “share content (videos, PSAs featuring players) around specific issues we are trying to support.”

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans. (AP)
Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans. (AP)

The memo also requests the NFL dedicate November to serve as a month of “Unity.” Similar to the way the league uses October to promote breast cancer awareness, the unity month would be dedicated to “a campaign initiative and related events,” according to the memo.

As opposed to sticking to football, the memo is asking the league to double, triple, quadruple its social justice efforts in the most public of ways.

While four players put their names to the memo – Malcom Jenkins, Anquan Boldin (now retired), Torrey Smith and Michael Bennett – another 40 or so support what’s behind it. But that was before Trump’s rally in Alabama, when the number of national anthem kneelers was somewhere in the single digits.

So what’s Goodell to do if the number of players signing the next memo grows exponentially, just as the protests did Sunday?

In comparison, delfate-gate is a relative walk in the park. As badly as Goodell screwed that up, the screw up was isolated to a single fan base that, more than anything, was galvanized in its support of Tom Brady. Rather than tune out, Patriots fans tuned in to watch their guy and their team stick it to Goodell.

The same can be said of Goodell’s handling of the Ezekiel Elliott case. Goodell may have managed to wrong both plaintiff and defendant, but Cowboys fans aren’t tuning out in droves to protest the commish’s handling of the ongoing case.

Unity Month sounds, well, unifying, except that many will focus on its origin (ie. Colin Kaepernick’s protest) and view it as the NFL caving to national anthem kneelers and kowtowing to a political agenda they don’t agree with. It’s an interpretation that would hit home for certain fans of every team in the league, and the only real way to voice displeasure about it would be to tune out.

This is where the NFL is headed. This is the labyrinth Roger Goodell, commissioner of a league that can’t determine what a catch is, must navigate.