Change The Narrative On Anthem Protests

There is a storyline/narrative in sports journalism today that needs to be put to bed.  Specifically, I mean the storyline/narrative involving the NFL National Anthem protests.  It is a narrative that never should have had the legs that it has had; we have now reached the point where we should all say;

  • Enough is enough – – and too much is plenty.

Let me recap briefly what I said back when Colin Kaepernick was an active player in the NFL and first sat through a national anthem and then knelt during the national anthem.  I said then – and I believe now – that three things are true all at the same time:

  1. There are social injustices involving the way that Blacks are treated by police officers and district attorneys in some parts of the US.  Those issues are fair game for protests/activism/reform.
  2. Colin Kaepernick – as is the case with every US person – has an inalienable right to protest those social injustices without fear of restraint from any government entity.  However, he may or may not receive reprisal(s) from the public or his employer for his action(s).
  3. Choosing to kneel during the national anthem was a poor choice for such a protest for two reasons.  First, it was sure to be a hot-button issue with many folks who would see this as a protest of patriotism.  [As it turns out, I was pretty much right with that one.]  Second, progress on those social injustices will not happen on the sidelines of an NFL game; they will happen at police stations and in district attorney’s offices.  Kneeling during the anthem does not take the issues to a place where they can be addressed directly.  Based on these two reasons, the attention of the public will be divided on the issues.

It seemed as if the anthem issue had calmed down a bit when the NFL changed a rule and said that players who did not want to stand for the anthem could remain in the locker room until the anthem was over.  That rule change received a flurry of coverage – – and then seemed to do what ought to be done which is “go quietly into the night”.  And then …

  • President Trump held a rally and thought it was important for him to announce that, in his mind, the new rule was not a solution to the problem but the new rule made it worse.
  • That is exactly what we did not need!

Again, just to be sure that no one misunderstands:

  • The President can say whatever he wants on this issue.  I have no wish to censor him or limit his range of expression.  [And for the record, I agree with him that the new rule is not much of a “solution” to the anthem problem.  I don’t know if it is “worse” than what went before, but it ain’t great.]
  • Having said that, he did not help this situation even a little bit and I wish he had kept his opinion on this matter to himself.

That statement by President Trump put the entire “debate” about the anthem and the purported “blackballing” of Colin Kaepernick and the new rule right back on center stage – where it need not be.  Remember:

  • None – as in not a single one – of the social injustices that started all of this will be resolved or improved within the context of the NFL games on Sundays.

And then, just to be certain that this issue will continue to be a topic for fruitless debate and commentary, the NFLPA decided earlier this week to file an official grievance over the new national anthem rule.  Great!  That is about as useful as a set of Amish emojis.

There was a big win amidst all the falderal encircling these events in the last year or so.  Malcom Jenkins and Anquan Boldin founded something called the Players Coalition; and in meetings with NFL owners, the Players Coalition got a commitment from the owners to put a total of about $90M into the Players Coalition that would be used to address the social issues and social injustices that started all of this.  That news got some coverage for a short time, but there was no follow-up.  That is sad because there is news reporting to be had in there AND because this demonstrates how NFL players can make direct contributions to the potential relief of some of those social injustices.  Here is a key point that has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves:

  • The members of the Players Coalition got that significant monetary commitment from the owners by sitting down and talking with them about the issues and about how the players could help improve social conditions and how all of that would make the NFL itself look good.  I have seen no reporting to indicate that Colin Kaepernick or any of his supporters ever did that or tried to do that.  The folks in the Players Coalition achieved some progress through constructive dialog and not by kneeling on the sidelines of a stadium.

Not only is that a positive and constructive bit of reporting that has been missing, there is also a paucity of reporting on activism by NFL players that result in changes in communities.  I am not talking about the periodic puff pieces you often read concerning an NFL player organizing a day camp for kids in his home town or something like that.  Those are feelgood stories about things that have little-to-no lasting effect on communities.  Jenny Vrentas is one of the folks who has taken over the Monday Morning Quarterback column at since Peter King’s departure.  Earlier this week, she reported on the sort of stuff that ought to be front and center about NFL players and their off-field activism.  Here is just a sample from Vrentas’ column:

  1. Devin McCourty and Robert Kraft jointly wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe advocating a specific change in the Massachusetts juvenile justice system.  The legislature passed a bill and the governor signed it changing the age for criminal responsibility in Massachusetts from 7 years old to 12 years old.
  2. Three Pats’ players moderated a forum/town meeting that brought together the 5 candidates running for Boston District Attorney.  This is the sort of direct engagement of community and government officials that is important because district attorneys play a critical role in the justice system regarding who gets charged with crimes and who is or is not allowed out on bail awaiting the disposition of said charges.  [Vrentas also reported that the Players Coalition is similarly involved in other election races for district attorney around the country.]
  3. Demario Davis and Ben Watson lobbied for a bill in Louisiana that became law in May.  It restores voting rights to felons who have been out of prison for 5 years with a clean record.
  4. Malcom Jenkins and Chris Long lobbied for a change in the law in PA that was signed into being this year.  It is called the Clean Slate Law and it wipes clean the record of non-violent criminals who do not repeat any non-violent offenses for 10 years.

Do not misunderstand.  I do not mean to imply that these sorts of actions resolve the problems of social injustice and police interactions with minority communities all over the US.  But these are a start – – and more importantly, they show that progress can be made by NFL players – and owners – working with legislators and law enforcement officials directly.  That is the sort of “scorecard” that sports journalists are ignoring in favor of reporting on the grievance filed by the NFLPA about the new anthem rule.  And don’t get me started on that grievance which asserts that the new rule was “… imposed by the NFL’s governing body without consultation with the NFLPA, [and] is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement and infringes on player rights,”

Let me translate that for you:

  • Those meanies in the owners’ suites didn’t talk to us about how to resolve this issue even though we knew about the issue for a couple of years and offered no ideas as to how to resolve it.  So, we are going to be aggrieved about this and pout for a while…
  • There is no infringement on “player rights”.  Players have a right to be free of restriction on their expression by government entities not by private citizens or by private business entities.

There is a saying in the TV news business, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  That has become SOP in the TV news business and consumers of TV news – and much of print news these days – have become accustomed to that news taxonomy.  In the “anthem situation”, the part of the story that “bleeds” is the fact that Colin Kaepernick is without a job in the NFL and that is where 99% of the reporting has focused.  Not a word in any report on that vector heading will provide anyone with information about progress toward resolving any of the problems that motivated Colin Kaepernick to kneel in the first place.

Let me assume for a moment that sports journalists would prefer to see progress on social injustice issues more than they would prefer to maintain the convenient narrative that allows for rather easily written reports/columns periodically on anthem protests/blackballing/union grievances.  If that is the case, we should see much more reporting going forward about Players Coalition activities in communities and in lobbying efforts with legislators and in dialogs with police officials and district attorneys.  [I said we “should see” more of this in the future not that it is nearly certain that we will.]  The Players Coalition will be administering $90M of the NFL’s money – along with money the players themselves contribute to righting social injustice situations.  There will be plenty to report on there – – but most of it “will not bleed”.  Might we see a deviation from the norm of the TV news business here?  I would welcome it.  At the same time, I doubt it.

One final point regarding the now-filed grievance.  The NFL and the NFLPA are partners in what is unquestionably the most successful sports enterprise in North America.  I believe the current CBA calls for the NFL and the players who make up the NFLPA to split the national revenue stream on a 52%/48% basis.  [If I am off on those percentages, it is not by more than a percent either way.]  They are splitting up relatively equally an annual take of about $13 – 15B.  And those two entities seem to be unable to come to an agreement on any issue that is more controversial than whether Tuesday came after Monday last week.  William Shakespeare summed up the correct reaction to this situation in 1595 when he wrote in Romeo and Juliet:

“A plague o’ both your houses!”  Act III, Scene 1

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…….



4 thoughts on “Change The Narrative On Anthem Protests”

  1. The problem that needs to be acknowledged stems from society making NFL players into role models (they are not). This probably happened in the 1980s. Therefore, the NFL is the victim of its own success.

    1. Tenacious P:

      I think society has made various people into role models who do not deserve that status. This statement applies to athletes, movie stars, TV personalities and the Kardashian sisters. We impute gravity and importance to their utterances about things they have not demonstrated any knowledge of. It is not merely an “NFL problem”.

  2. The players who protested did not think their actions would lead directly to changes. What they were trying to do was let people know that players they respect and cheer for on Sunday afternoons want them to pay attention to a serious social and legal injustice. For whatever it’s worth, I think the failure to sign Kaepernick to a contract furthered that attempt and made it a much bigger issue.

    1. Doug:

      At first, I thought the way you do about the purpose of the “kneeling protest”. However, that happened about 2 years ago and anyone who is going to be made aware of “the issues” is probably aware by now. In July 2018, it is time to move to “the next level” – to borrow a phrase – and the “kneelers” and the reporters who write about the “kneelers” and the “kneeling” are not moving on; they are keeping this in the “awareness stage” and that mine has already been exploited.

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