The Great NFL National Anthem Kneeling Debate is now 18 months old, and shows no signs of vanishing. Just hours after the Houston Texans had to deny a report that they would not sign any players who protest, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross came out and left no doubt: “All of our players will be standing” for the national anthem in 2018. (Update: Ross walked back his statement. See below.)
Ross made the comments to the New York Daily News on Monday while he was in New York to receive the Jackie Robinson Foundation’s ROBIE Lifetime Achievement Award for, as the Daily News said, being a “longtime champion of equal opportunity.”
The NFL protests date back to August 2016, when then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the anthem to protest what he saw as systemic racial inequality and police brutality. Several other players followed his lead in 2017, particularly when it became apparent that Kaepernick was getting passed over for quarterback jobs in favor of less-talented but also less-controversial players.
“Initially, I totally supported the players in what they were doing,” Ross said. “It’s America and people should be able to really speak about their choices.”
But his views changed, he said, once he started to believe that the protests were against “support of our country or the military”—this, despite the fact that the players exhaustively and continuously emphasized how much they love America and respect the military. Last September, President Trump recast the debate into a patriotic context, contending that those who didn’t show proper respect were ungrateful for their blessings as Americans.
“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” Trump tweeted. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
Ross suggested on Monday that Trump’s stance was the reason for his own change of heart. “When that message changed, and everybody was interpreting [the protests] as [being against America], then I was against kneeling,” Ross said. “I like Donald. I don’t support everything that he says. Overall, I think he was trying to make a point, and his message became what kneeling was all about. From that standpoint, that is the way the public is interpreting it. So I think that’s really incumbent upon us to adopt that. That’s how, I think, the country now is interpreting the kneeling issue.”
It’s an interesting take, suggesting that the president gets to set the terms of what a peaceful political statement means. It’s also at odds with what Ross reportedly said about Trump during owners’ meetings on the anthem last fall. (“I’m not with Trump,” Ross said in September, per ESPN. “And I don’t mind anyone printing that anywhere.”) But it wouldn’t be the first time that a onetime vocal opponent of Trump’s realigned his own views to fall in line with those of the president.
How exactly Ross could accomplish that everybody-stand edict is a matter for another day; the NFL has to walk the tightrope between respecting the wishes of its fanbase and respecting the rights of its players to speak their minds. (Yes, this will descend into an impenetrable briar patch of rights-versus-mandates arguments; the simple fact is this: regardless of what any other workplace does, the NFL allowed players to protest during 2017, and that fact alone makes any sweeping solution tough to implement.)
UPDATE: Ross walked back his words with a statement Tuesday morning:
Stephen Ross statement in full now released to media… pic.twitter.com/CJWQCf1DgU
— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) March 6, 2018
One of the stranger turns of an insanely strange 2017 was the fact that football—good ol’ fly-the-jets-and-wave-the-flag football, the sport of Johnny Unitas and his haircut you could set your watch to—somehow got recast in Trump’s America as a “progressive” sport. Emboldened by Trump, fans cast off decades of allegiances in the space of a few short weeks, loudly proclaiming how they’d never watch the NFL again and theatrically burning their jerseys.
But the newly-minted NFL critics either came back into the fold, or they weren’t all that numerous in the first place; ratings for the NFL, while down over prior seasons, were down by pretty much the exact same rate as overall television broadcasts. (Ratings rebounded late in the season, after the shock wave of the protests, and the NFL suffered far fewer viewership losses than ultraconservative, no-kneeling-allowed NASCAR.) Plus, even with the losses, the NFL remains the undisputed champion of broadcast television; it’s a smaller pie, but the NFL’s still claiming the biggest piece.
Still, regardless of the actual numerical impact, the protests during the anthem left a significant bruise on the NFL’s public image. It’ll be years before anyone attending or watching an NFL game will listen to the national anthem without scanning the sidelines to see who’s kneeling. A league already suffering from self-inflicted wounds dealt itself a hard pounding to the jewels by not taking the protests seriously until too late. And now, the NFL’s got itself a hell of a mess on its hands.
Fans, and players, who want their sports to reflect society will continue to push for more protests, more activism, more athlete involvement in social issues. And fans who want sports to serve as an escape from an increasingly claustrophobic and bitter political environment will continue to wage high-volume, low-stakes fights against any real-world intrusions into the game itself.
There’s not going to be any easy answer here; no simplistic “ban all kneeling” or “let them say whatever they want” solution will come anywhere close to untying this knot. In America, we’re now in fight-first, think-last mode, all of us, and that’s not a mindset that’s going to allow the NFL to reach anything approaching peace on the kneeling front.
So, regardless of what you think of Ross’s views, give him credit for laying his cards out on the table. He’s making his stance known, and it’s now up to you—”you” being player, fan, media, fellow owner—to decide whether you want to ride with him or steer in another direction. It’s a far preferable stance to the weak sauce other owners peddle, watery public promises of respect for the players followed by cowardly backpedaling.
Like America’s newly hardcore with-us-or-against-us mentality, the anthem-kneeling issue isn’t going away. Best to know where everyone stands; that’s the only way this league and the people who love the game can figure out how the NFL can exist in this new world.
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