Who's to blame for anthem controversy spreading into third season? The NFL, of course

Yahoo Sports

About a half-dozen NFL players protested during the pregame national anthem during the first night of league-wide preseason action Thursday.

There were a couple of knees taken, a couple of raised fists raised.

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And a couple of tweets from President Donald Trump.

Here we go, Season 3 of the anthem controversy and by the low-key tone (by his standards) of Trump’s comments, maybe even he is bored by all of this.

It makes it even more disastrous that the NFL has been incapable of solving the problem definitively – either by eliminating it altogether or telling the world it doesn’t care, so deal with it. Instead, it just festers.

“The NFL players are at it again – taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem,” Trump tweeted (all punctuation and grammar errors are his). “Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their ‘outrage’ at something that most of them are unable to define. They make a fortune doing what they love……

“…..Be happy, be cool! A football game, that fans are paying soooo much money to watch and enjoy, is no place to protest. Most of that money goes to the players anyway. Find another way to protest. Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!”

For what it’s worth, even the retweet numbers on his statements are low – running around half (as this was published) of what a similarly timed tweet concerning tariff’s relating to the nation of Turkey, which doesn’t seem like a real hot-button wedge issue.

Trump’s goal here, though, is likely to draw more players into protest as games continue this weekend. He accurately knows this is a winning political issue for him to exploit. The more it gets churned up, the more he is on the politically popular side. He has told NFL team owners as much and promised he won’t let up. Last season, Vice President Mike Pence flew to a San Francisco-Indianapolis game just so he could walk out after the anthem in supposed, and expected, outrage.

Just about any politician would do the same. This is why they are politicians.

Dolphins defensive end Robert Quinn raises his right fist during the national anthem Thursday before the team’s preseason game against the Buccaneers. (AP)
Dolphins defensive end Robert Quinn raises his right fist during the national anthem Thursday before the team’s preseason game against the Buccaneers. (AP)

The anthem issue began in the 2016 preseason, courtesy of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It has nearly died out on numerous occasions, with just a few players protesting with little to no fanfare.

Trump himself revived it in September 2017 when he called any protesting player a “son of a bitch” and demanded he be fired. (In the same speech, he also railed against the NFL’s player safety initiatives but has seemingly abandoned that less popular line of criticism). The comments were so strong the league rallied to protest, with owners such as Dallas’ Jerry Jones and Detroit’s Martha Firestone Ford participating.

This time, though, it’s the NFL’s fault. It reinvigorated everything by creating a weak and confusing new rule last spring that appeased no one. Among the players who may have been protesting Thursday was Philadelphia’s Michael Bennett. His actions could have been the direct result of the NFL’s policy that allowed for players to remain in the locker room during the anthem (which itself, of course, is a form of protest). Bennett emerged from the tunnel during the anthem Thursday and was seen walking to the bench during the ending of the song. Maybe he just timed it wrong.

The league has tabled any player punishments as it continues to figure this out. Two years in and it still has nothing? No matter what you believe about the issue – stand or kneel – the one point of agreement is NFL leadership has made this worse for everyone.

The league can demand everyone stand, a la the NBA. Citing that the pregame anthem comes when a player is at work and on the clock, it can mandate this behavior or punish the players.

It could, smartly, change the pregame schedule and play the anthem while players and coaches are inside the locker room. That’s how the vast majority of college football programs do it, mostly because it allows for the exciting, tradition-rich manner of taking the field to rev up fans directly into kickoff. The NFL instead dials the energy down with the anthem and boring coin flip. By scripted game-presentation standards, the colleges have it right and the NFL has it backward.

The league could improve the pregame and end this controversy in one swoop.

Or the NFL could say it doesn’t care what the players do during the anthem and accept the consequences. The whole thing would likely fade out on its own – not a single player protested during the playoffs or Super Bowl last season.

While some fans have undoubtedly given up on the league, television executives say viewership is up if you count streaming numbers. Regardless, whatever is chosen will anger some segment of fans. That’s America, though. No one agrees on everything. Or anything.

At least the NFL could put it behind and move on.

Instead, the NFL keeps bumbling this and feeding it oxygen. Commissioner Roger Goodell is missing in action, perhaps too terrified to do or say anything. Owners are in disagreement. So are coaches and players. Everyone is looking for a sign, and the league won’t make a call, one way or the other.

As such, a roughly two-minute song played before otherwise forgettable preseason games in the middle of August gets the NFL bashed again and again here. All but a few players seem to have moved on – unless Trump goads them into doing what he wants.

Even Trump has toned down the rhetoric … for now.

Welcome to Season 3 of the anthem issue.

A few knees, a few fists and a lot of Donald Trump tweets almost certainly still to come as the NFL fiddles in terror and incompetence.

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