Reimer: NFL owners display cowardice with unnecessary kneeling policy

Alex Reimer
May 23, 2018 - 10:44 am

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

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NFL owners desperately want the tired controversy about players kneeling for the national anthem to disappear. Yet, their cowardice continues to resuscitate the story.

The league voted Wednesday to effectively kill the anthem protests. The new policy says players on the field are mandated to stand for the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and those who don’t must stay in the locker room. Teams will be fined if players fail to demonstrate "appropriate" respect for the flag and anthem –– IE: anyone kneeling to protest racial injustice and police brutality. The caterwauling about how the league has stripped its players of their First Amendment rights has already started.

But here’s the thing: few players were protesting anyway. This story was dying on its own. Now it’s back in the spotlight, thanks to a mealy-mouthed edict that bans player protests without explicitly doing so. 

Over the last year, players have shown they won’t kneel unless prompted. Prior to President Trump’s “sons of bitches” tirade, the number of players who didn’t stand stopped at roughly half a dozen. The totals dramatically increased the week of Trump’s remarks, but then died down again, until Texans owner Bob McNair equated players to inmates at a league meeting. Then more than 30 players on his team decided to take a knee.

The latest sign of the public’s disinterest in the kneeling saga came this week, when ProFootballTalk reported internal franchise documents show teams viewed Colin Kaepernick as a starting quarterback in 2017. The papers were produced as part of Kaepernick’s ongoing collision lawsuit against the league. 

Last year, that report probably would’ve been one of the biggest stories in the country. If true, that means there is tangible evidence that shows NFL owners are blackballing Kaepernick for his political views. It's the possible smoking gun. 

But the story was largely ignored. The only reaction it generated was a Twitter rant from Jason Whitlock. 

We have short attention spans in America. In today’s hyperactive news cycle, news stories seem outdated if they are five days old. The kneeling topic is nearly two years old. At this point, there is nothing fresh to say about it. 

With that in mind, it’s apparent the NFL owners are playing to Trump, who’s shown no qualms about spurning his billionaire donors and ravaging the league on his erratic Twitter feed. Outside of the sycophantic crowd at “Fox & Friends,” however, there’s little evidence that suggests Trump’s criticisms of the league resonated with sentient human beings. 

For the seventh straight year, “Sunday Night Football” was the highest-rated series on television. NFL games accounted for 37 of the 50 most-watched TV broadcasts of 2017. Yes, ratings were down, but live viewership numbers have declined for almost everything. The NFL’s downturn is relative.

Perhaps NFL owners don’t want to acknowledge this reality, because they’re powerless to stop it. The number of cord-cutters promises to keep rising. It’s much easier to pin the problem on a fixable scapegoat, like players who won’t stand up with their hands on their hearts while the national anthem blares over the stadium loudspeakers. 

The thing is, that scapegoat doesn’t really exist. Towards the end of last season, the number of kneelers had sunk to fewer than 20. Outside of NFL boardrooms, this is no longer a topic of discussion, until the latest ridiculous idea that was suggested in those spaces comes to light. (Prior to this ruling, the crown belonged to Bills owner Terry Pegula, who recommended last fall the league find a charismatic African-American spokesman to perform damage control.)

At this point, the kneeling policy addresses a nonexistent problem. Such an infinitesimal number of players were protesting, and the public really didn’t care.

But now maybe Trump will give his donor pals an “attaboy” on Twitter. That must be worth the unnecessary backlash. 

This post has been updated.

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