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NFL stumbles onto a political minefield with new National Anthem policy

The league’s decision to exclude or penalize players for peaceful protests is ill-conceived and divisive.

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-Virginia vs Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

“Here in America, we are descended in blood and spirit from revolutionists and rebels. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

In announcing its decision to mandate players’ on-field observances of the national anthem, the NFL has stumbled into a dangerous territory where existing racial and political divisions likely will be heightened in our increasingly polarized nation. First and foremost, those fans who favor the league’s decision and castigate the protesting players should realize that the right to engage in peaceful protest is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This constitutional right is not negated in any way by the fact that players are protesting within the context of doing their jobs as professional athletes.

Certainly of at least equal importance are the significant, racial overtones inherent to the NFL’s decision. Unless we understand and appreciate the basis for these protests, it’s easy enough to depict the participants as mere malcontents bent on disrupting the unsuspecting pro football fan’s weekly entertainment. Escapism plays a central role in the lifestyles of avid football fans. If you have any doubt about this, just peruse the outlandish costumes donned by fans attending games at Heinz Field or witness the massive consumption of food and alcohol before, during and after a Steelers game. In the midst of such revelry, anyone having the bad manners to direct our attention back to reality — even if only for a few moments — is viewed as an unwelcome spoilsport. While it’s difficult to understand logically, many fans seem to expect the gladiatorial (and often brutal) spectacle of a pro football game to unfold within a context of purity from which the larger world and its myriad problems ought to be excluded.

But unfortunately, that particular ship sailed at least as long ago as 1968, when Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in protest during the medal ceremony at the Summer Games in Mexico City. As celebrities and role models admired by millions of ordinary citizens, many black athletes today feel obligations to use their status to shine a spotlight on the serious problem of racial profiling and the widely-documented violence against black citizens by police. One simply cannot grasp the true dimensions of this problem unless we’re prepared to acknowledge the growing level of righteous rage among black Americans whose fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and friends have been killed or terrorized in what should have been ordinary interactions with law enforcement. That’s the elephant in the room which we cannot ignore.

So now the same NFL owners whose pockets have been lined for decades via the talents of these players have decreed that their peaceful protests will no longer be allowed to be seen in the light of day, nor to appear in the unblinking frame of a TV camera. Those refusing to stand on the field for the national anthem must now remain hidden from view until its conclusion to avoid fines or other disciplinary actions. As for the major sports networks, it’s likely they’ve already begun preparations to scan the sidelines during the anthem to identify any flagging patriots on each team. So in addition to being denied their constitutional right to protest, those choosing to remain off of the field during the anthem will also be subject to potential blacklisting by both the league and commercial sponsors. In so doing, the league has virtually guaranteed that the weekly sports-news cycle will be dominated by events which have nothing to do with the game itself.

Is it patriotic for the NFL to squelch dissent among players or to invite the disparagement of those who no longer believe our national anthem reflects their experiences as American citizens? Is this the kind of blind patriotism that our forefathers fought and died to preserve, or might this be something more akin to the forced patriotism demanded under despotic regimes such as those in North Korea or Russia?

Another reality we can’t tiptoe around is the increasing polarization of our national politics. Can we, for example, ignore the obvious fact that — having made a federal project out of the NFL players’ protests — a certain Twitter-happy government official is the person largely responsible for fanning these flames of division? Eisenhower was considered the epitome of a conservative Republican, yet he also understood the crucial difference between honest dissent and disloyal subversion. But these days it appears the NFL is willfully goose-stepping to an authoritarian rhythm.

During this period when the league faces a more serious range of issues than at anytime in its history, perhaps the NFL ought not to be branding itself as a “good-old-boys” network, but rather, as a bastion of tolerance and sensitivity to the aspirations of minority groups which represent a substantial segment of its overall talent pool. In these respects, the recent decision represents a major step backwards and promises to distract even more attention from the NFL’s core product.