The NFL’s National Anthem Failure

The NFL’s new policy that players must stand for the national anthem or else stay in the locker room during the song is the wrong decision. Team owners, a group of 32 billionaires, took varying approaches last season to handling the public relations kerfuffle over African-American players who knelt during the anthem. The “compromise,” announced by league head Roger Goodell, is more of a mandate, a response to an unexpectedly significant public backlash that seemed to drag down the NFL’s all-important TV ratings. Of course the league has the legal right to make its own rules, but the new policy represents a failure of moral leadership.

It’s important to remember that while former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the kneeling as a way to protest black deaths at the hands of police officers, it was President Trump who played the most important role in the melodrama. The president made vulgar and unbecoming remarks about the few (at the time) players who were not standing for the anthem. The protests, which were then small and confined to a small handful of the league’s 32 teams, grew in response to Trump’s insults, until it snowballed into ESPN’s favorite topic of the year. Can you imagine a more perfect example of our dysfunctional public square than that?

Indeed, the NFL’s new mandate smells of the authoritarian flavor of the day. Conservatives who cheer on the NFL for making an example out of football players love to emphasize that the NFL is a private business and can do what it wants. Yes, and Google was a private business when it fired James Damore, and so are the elite universities that “disinvite” conservatives from speaking, and so is Facebook when it blocks pro-life advertisements, etc etc. This is a very strange time for those who adhere to traditional beliefs to be erring on the side of corporate autonomy.

The new policy is presented as a compromise between image-conscious owners and socially conscious players. But is it? According to the players who knelt, the entire point of the demonstration was not to express hatred of America or disgust at her citizens, but to express sadness for the centuries of racial animosity and violence that continue to gnaw at our country’s heel. You can make a good argument that kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner fails to sufficiently get this message across, but you can’t argue that forcing players who want to kneel—for reasons political, or historical, or familial—to stay in the locker room, out of sight, is an authentic compromise. Rather, it’s the exact kind of conscience gerrymandering that traditionally religious Americans are used to by now, the kind that offers “freedom of religion” in a toothless, privatized sense, but denies “freedom of religious practice” in public life.

Why the implicit comparison between racial demonstrations and religious practice? For one, the similarities between the responses to each from corporate America is too much to ignore. Secondly, the NFL is a surprisingly religious league, with more openly Christian superstars than either the NBA or major league baseball. It’s not hard to imagine that the league’s aversion to peaceful (even prayerful) demonstrations during the national anthem might be a prelude to a more holistic aversion to players whose beliefs and practices are outside the mainstream.

In fact, we don’t have to imagine this, because the NFL has already told us what they think of orthodox Christianity. By threatening to punish states that protect Christian conscience from transgender dictates, the NFL has already positioned itself as a arbiter of American ethics, fit to lecture us all on morality. The anthem mandate reveals impressive depths of moral hypocrisy: The NFL doesn’t want the views of black Americans to disturb viewers’ TV experience, but it has no problem telling those who believe in “male and female, He created them” that pro football is better off without them. So much for compromises!

Given the NFL’s commitment to the right side of secular history; given its comfort with telling players to stay out of sight if they want to take a knee; and given the number of professing Christians who play pro football, doesn’t it make sense to be concerned that sooner or later, billionaire owners are going to want their players to stop posting those bigoted Bible verses on social media?

Roger Goodell and the team owners have missed a valuable opportunity. They’ve missed an opportunity to model a healthy public square, one in which people with different perspectives on rituals and anthems can dialogue with each other in public, learn from each other, and work with each other. They’ve missed, in other words, an opportunity to model the idea of America. One doesn’t need to agree with the demonstrations themselves to see the value in a sports league that errs on the side of peaceful expression and dialogue.

The water is getting choppy these days for pro football. Millennials are less interested in touchdowns and more interested in CTE. There are some who argue that the physical costs of football render it unacceptable to moral society. Count me among the number who believe, as Roger Scruton says, that valuable things are more easily torn down than built up. I only wish the NFL would agree.

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