Last week NFL owners unanimously enacted a policy requiring players to stand for the National Anthem. Players have the option to stay in the locker room during the song but if they are on the field, they will be fined if they protest in any way, including sitting or kneeling. Shortly after the policy was announced, New York Jets interim owner Christopher Johnson had the following to say:
“I do not like imposing any club-specific rules,” Johnson said. “If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players. Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest. There are some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines. I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t. There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions. If the team gets fined, that’s just something I’ll have to bear.”
“I seriously struggled with this,” he said of the anthem modifications approved by the owners. “You know my position on the anthem, and you have to understand that the plan we ended up with, due to some serious work in the [meeting] room, was vastly less onerous than the one that was presented to me late last week. In the end, I felt I had to support it from a membership standpoint.”
Johnson’s willingness to the pay the fines and take a leading, progressive stance among the NFL owners was a head turner for both the Jets players and other well known stars around the league (despite still voting for the policy).
A man of the players, Mr. Johnson! Thank you for everything you do for us! First-Class gesture https://t.co/CYciPWKzBb
— Jamal Adams (@TheAdamsEra) May 23, 2018
It also brought out a visceral reaction among some segments of the fanbase, even though the Jets did not have a single player take a knee last year.
— Brian Monzo (@BMonzoRadio) May 23, 2018
It does not matter how many times individuals who take part in these protests explain they are not attacking the military, the narrative has been dictated by the current political climate.
Like many issues today, there is limited nuance given to the discussion around it. You either stand and love your country or you protest and hate your country. You are also unlikely to change somebody’s opinion on the matter.
I stood for the National Anthem in every sporting event I ever played in and do at all professional games I attend. If I played in the NFL today (damn you, lack of speed and athleticism), I would be standing before the game.
However, I would be standing because the guy next to me would have the right to kneel if he wanted to.
Patriotism isn’t about making everyone stand and salute the flag.
Patriotism is about making this a country where everyone wants to.
— Jason Kander (@JasonKander) September 24, 2017
Protest is not supposed to be popular or be done in a way that makes people comfortable. You do not have to dig too deep into our history for reminders like more than 60% of people disapproved freedom riders, Martin Luther King Jr and the March on Washington for LGBTQ rights in the early 90s. Muhammad Ali was not lauded in his time for antiwar activism and his outspoken personality.
I am not naive enough to think my experience in this country is the same as every other individual. If a NFL player wants to call attention to a systematic problem, it is their right to do that. The counter to that point is the NFL has a right to discipline its employees how it sees fit (although we still need to see how the NFLPA counters this new rule).
Yet, let’s not fallback on the narrative that players kneeling has crippled business for the NFL. Overall revenue, ad revenue and sponsorship revenue all increased last year and continues to pace far ahead of other leagues. The decline in TV ratings is not an outlier compared to other professional sports leagues, where there has been no kneeling and has actually been less severe than others. Let’s also not fallback on the narrative that players protesting is a distraction to a productive football team since the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the most activist teams in the NFL, just won the Super Bowl.
The data doesn’t back up the “bad for business” narrative. There is political pressure involved in this new rule and an ownership group that is not willing to push back on that pressure. Everybody with eyes knows that Colin Kaepernick was one of the 30-35 best quarterbacks alive last season but he couldn’t get a job. Everybody with eyes knows that Eric Reid merits a roster spot somewhere right now but can’t get a job. Protest is not popular and these players are paying the price. I don’t agree with everything Kaepernick has done but his charity and advocacy work out weighs anything I disagree with and clearly I am not alone in that viewpoint.
As for the Jets fans who say they are quitting on the team because of this, I call BS, much like the guy who wears the “I STAND FOR THE ANTHEM” shirt but is ordering pretzels or going to the bathroom during it (we’ve all seen you). The backlash feels like a loud, tiny minority. This Memorial Day Instagram post has 185 total comments with about half being negative and many of them repeated by the same individuals multiple times. Also, the fanbase is better served with people like this not around:
Maybe Christopher Johnson’s statement was a calculated business decision, maybe another season will pass with no Jets players taking a knee and maybe a huge segment of Jets fans will abandon the team (doubtful). We do know the debate around this issue is not going away any time soon but it was encouraging, at least for this fan, to see the how the Jets have handled it.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com