If we learned one thing from this past weekend of national anthem drama, it’s that the NFL loves unity. Both the league and many of its teams chose to approach the situation by embracing that ideal, whether it be through a statement or locking arms on the field.
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” Goodell said in his statement.
“Our country needs more unifying leadership right now, not more divisiveness,” the Miami Dolphins’ statement read.
After the Titans stayed in the locker room during the national anthem, one player explained the move by saying, “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.”
Although some teams and owners used stronger language in their statements, the overarching message of the weekend was that the NFL was united with its players. While this made some feel good inside and have hope for the future of the league, others asked, “Well, what are we showing unity towards? Anger towards Trump? First amendment rights? Recognizing an inequality problem in the county?”
The answer to that question was less clear, as nearly every official statement avoided the real reason players knelt in the first place (racial inequality/mistreatment towards African-Americans) in favor of “pursuing positive change” or something similar. This didn’t sit well with too many people, leading them to challenge the NFL to take a stronger stance and acknowledge if there’s a race problem in our country. But should they?
While it’s fair to say the NFL approached the situation through a PR lens, is it fair to bash them for it? The NFL, as well as its individual teams, all share a responsibility to their stakeholders (fans, owners, players, employees, etc.) and they did their best at finding an effective way to do that in an extremely tough situation. Perhaps the best example of just how difficult it was for teams to balance that line was when Jerry Jones and his Dallas Cowboys took a knee before the anthem and were still booed! Some fans are so hypersensitive to any sign of disrespect of the anthem that “unity” is just about the only reasonable course of action left. Conversely, vague displays of trust also leave many unimpressed.
Would it have been nice to see the NFL address the racial issues in our country or show support for the kneeling NFL players’ cause? Sure. Whether you agree with the extent of the issue or not, it would have been cool to see the NFL become a leader on a social issue like equality. But expecting them to is setting expectations a bit too high. Kaepernick’s fight is not their fight. By NFL standards, the move to call the President’s words divisive and disrespectful was pretty bold.
As a quick aside, I’ve never been one to complain about politics in sports. I also like players to be opinionated and unafraid to be their authentic selves. But in this case, I just can’t fault the NFL for staying neutral on this one (if that’s even what you can call it). The NFL doesn’t want to talk politics any more than fans do and that’s understandable. For once, I think the NFL’s statement was enough. It allowed players to approach the situation how they saw fit. It didn’t censor them. LeSean McCoy even stretched on the sideline during the anthem (vastly more disrespectful than taking a knee) and the league hasn’t said a word about it.
So where does the NFL go from here? I understand some still faulting the NFL for claiming to care about the interests of the players while catering to its fans and brand image more often. But this whole anthem situation really presents a great opportunity for the NFL and its teams to make a positive impact in society and come out looking fantastic after it’s all said and done. How can they do that? I don’t have that answer. But why not attempt to capitalize on all this “unity” and show that the league can be an agent for positive change (in anything) through actions, rather than statements? For once, the league and its players agree on something. That’s a rare and powerful combination. Let’s see if they use it for more than just fighting the President.