The NFL owners had a choice to make last week as they grappled with the issue of NFL players kneeling to protest police brutality.
Would they stand with Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs in the conflict or would they stand with Donald Trump, who received multiple deferments for bone spurs during the Vietnam War and never served in the military?
After the NFL passed its new policy on standing for the national anthem, Sen. Duckworth tweeted a picture of her prosthetic legs and said, “One day my coffin will be draped with our nation’s flag just as it did with my husband’s and brothers. I will always stand on these legs for the flag and the anthem but ALSO my honor to defend people’s right to free speech.’’
Sen. Duckworth isn’t the only veteran who understands the members of the military protect the right of free speech.
Naturally, Trump took the opposite view.
Trump defended the NFL’s new policy of mandating players to stand if they’re on the field for the national anthem although giving them the right to stay in the locker room for the anthem and suggested no player should be allowed to stay in the locker room for the anthem (maybe they should go to the concession stands which remain open when the anthem is played). He said those who didn’t stand didn’t belong in the country.
We know where the NFL stands.
The owners – many of them billionaires – are such cowards that they let themselves be bullied by Trump. They tried to say it was a compromise but they totally caved on the issue.
But why did they do that? That’s the unanswered question. They should have learned on the playground that you have to stand up to a bully.
They would have been better off doing nothing because the controversy was fading. Instead, they made things worse and ignited a whole new controversy.
The NFL never stood up to Trump when he first ignited the controversy and then orchestrated the stunt when Mike Pence showed up at an Indianapolis Colts game and then left right after the anthem when some players knelt.
They could have pointed out they stood with John McCain, the gold star parents and the disabled reporter, just some of Trump’s bullying targets.
They could have made a strong defense of free speech and the right to protests and saluted the players for their concern about policy brutality.
They could have pointed out that Trump tried to sue his into the NFL and lost when he had a USFL franchise. They could have pointed out he was outbid for the Buffalo Bills. They could have pointed out how many times he’s gone bankrupt and often doesn’t pay his bills.
They could have stood on principle.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has some personal family experience of standing on principle.
His father, Charles Goodell, stood up to President Richard Nixon and publicly opposed the Vietnam War. That cost him his Senate seat in New York when Nixon targeted him in the next election.
Still, history remembers Goodell’s courage in standing up for what is right by giving up his Senate career.
The only lesson his son seems to have learned is that taking a stand can be costly.
And Goodell obviously doesn’t want to risk his lucrative salary.
And the owners seemingly are afraid of alienating some fans even though there is little evidence that the kneeling hurt the NFL’s bottom line.
TV ratings were down last year, but they started to decline two years ago apparently because TV viewing is down across the board.
The Carolina Panthers recently sold for a record $2.2 billion so it certainly isn’t having a negative impact on the value of franchises.
But they now have people on both sides of the issue upset.
And Trump will now probably keep using them as a punching bag even though Colin Kaepernick’s attorney said he believes it is a violation of federal law for Trump to encourage the owners to fire kneeling players.
On top of that, the owners didn’t even formally vote on the new rule. They asked for opinions and Jed York, the San Francisco 49ers owner, said he would abstain and nobody else spoke up against it.
And they didn’t consult the players before taking the action, which further inflamed the already hostile labor relationship between the two sides. The NFLPA tweeted it would challenge any aspect of the policy that is not consistent with the CBA. De Smith, the head of the union, said it was an attempt to control the players.
There was even a report that some players would boycott the season if Kaepernick and Eric Reid aren’t signed. Don’t expect that to happen. The players as a group aren’t noted for being militant. The NFLPA could take immediate action like boycotting the voluntary OTAs en masse or having all players stay in the locker room during the anthem once the season starts. But don’t expect that either.
The players need better leadership so they have a coordinated strategy instead of leaving it up to individual players to decide what action to take.
Meanwhile, the collusion cases filed by Kaepernick and Reid continue. It turns out some league executive have admitted Kaepernick is good enough to start in the league but whether they can prove collusion remains to be seen.
The owners, though, did commission a poll to determine the fans’ feeling about the protests. If the poll was shared with the clubs to help persuade them not to sign Kaepernick, that would help the collusion case.
And other politicians are weighing in.
Congressman Pete King of New York helped fuel the controversy when he knocked Christopher Johnson, the current CEO of the New York Jets who is serving in that capacity because his brother Woody Johnson is Trump’s ambassador to Britain, for saying he would pay the fines if Jets’ players wanted to kneel.
“Would he pay fines of players giving Nazi salutes? King tweeted.
Actually, the Nazis would not tolerate protests. Free speech is a cornerstone of the idea of America. Not of the Nazis.
And it turns out that somebody found a 1934 AP story in which a German football club was suspended for a year for refusing to give the Nazi salute.
The politicians tend to follow party lines. Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, a Democrat, said he’s a fan who is will boycott the NFL. A Republican Tennessee congresswoman, Diane Black, said she didn’t go to games last year and is giving up her season tickets. She just happens to be running for governor so she is probably using the NFL as a campaign issue.
This is probably just the beginning of this controversy, not the end. It is anybody’s guess what happens next.
The NFL has the unique ability to make things worse. The owners are so clueless, they didn’t realize what they were doing.
It’s just another example of the NFL’s desperate need for new leadership.