Kneeling for Naught

By George Coyoy

The NFL has been at the center of a political controversy over the past two years, with a national debate raging on over the phenomenon of professional football players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. This debate reached a fever pitch in the 2017 season, resulting in large swaths of fans tuning the NFL out altogether. Ratings and ticket sales plummeted, which put the NFL in a compromising position. This was bad business and NFL executives knew it, so the league decided to change its policy regarding the national anthem. What was once a hands-off approach to player conduct during the national anthem became one that is more regulated, but still gives players options. Players can now choose to stay in the locker room during the anthem or come out and stand while the anthem is played. Players can even choose to demonstrate during the national anthem, though now they will be fined for doing so. This, to me, is reasonable. Others engaged in the debate seem more caught up in useless conversations about how things should be, and as a result are missing what the situation actually is. Let’s take a step back and understand the situation for what it is.

Naturally, this policy has only thrown fuel on the fire. Liberals are crying because they weep for every missed opportunity to demonstrate how much America sucks. Conservatives are characteristically split, with some cheering the decision, others chastising those who are cheering the decision, and others with their own thoughts ranging from indifference to inanity. With everyone eager to play partisan football, many are missing the broader point – how one feels about this policy is absolutely irrelevant in the face of the devastating public backlash the NFL experienced in 2017. A failure to respond would have been a death wish for the league, especially with the NBA’s skyrocketing popularity and Vince McMahon’s next attempt at professional football lurking in the shadows. The NFL should be commended for coming up with a solid compromise that neither compels player participation during the anthem nor accepts disrespect of its fans. Perhaps the best criticism of this policy is that it came a year too late.

Why the Policy Makes Sense

Make no mistake about it – this was purely a business move. As it turns out the NFL is a product and, as such, the most important people to the NFL are not its players but its fans. Yes, fans – the people who bestow relevancy upon the league by supporting it with their wallets and eyes. The anthem protests rightly struck a nerve with fans who were sick of watching grown men protesting a country that made them millionaires for playing a children’s game. What made this protest particularly insulting was doing so during the national anthem, a tradition which is supposed to be a moment of unity for Americans. Yes, part of that which unifies us is the right to protest, but choosing to protest during the national anthem is classless, tasteless, and, from a pragmatic point of view, only hurts the cause for which one is protesting. That millions of fans were disgusted with this display and thus stopped supporting the NFL is neither surprising nor besides the point. It is the entire point, and one’s opinions on their feelings of disgust or on the legitimacy in their feeling so is entirely irrelevant.

That hasn’t stopped the moralizing, the preening, the self-righteous takes from getting hurled from sea to shining sea. Narcissistic commentators have proven more interested in trying to sound clever and morally upstanding than presenting the situation in its proper perspective. Commentary has become catharsis rather than truth seeking. The opinions from the overtly left-wing world of sports journalism have been categorically critical, with many criticizing this policy as un-American and the more constitutionally illiterate commentators proclaiming that this is a violation of the players’ first amendment rights. In reality, this is a very fair, pragmatic policy that is neither passive nor heavy handed.

Let us consider the policy. Players can choose to remain in the locker room during the national anthem if they do not wish to participate. If a player decides to participate, he can still protest during the anthem, though now he does so under threat of penalty. How this is “un-American” is unclear, as it gives the individual the freedom to choose if and how he will participate in the national anthem. Freedom of the individual is the ultimate American value. Freedom of the individual also means the individual’s actions have consequences and one consequence of protesting the national anthem is a fine, which is perfectly fine from a business point of view. Over the past two seasons, some players decided to protest during the national anthem. In response, fans decided to have a protest of their own in the form of tuning out of the league altogether. This led to a significant drop in ratings and ticket sales, largely due to the player protests during the anthem. For the league to sit on its hands and acquiesce the players and ignore the fans would have been business suicide. Compelled participation in the anthem would have likewise been a nightmare scenario for the league’s relationship with the player union. Thus, the league landed on this extremely reasonable policy. The NFL got something right for once, and all parties involved should be reasonably happy with the result. Yet players and media seem to be upset with the policy, particularly with the fines.

Taking issue with the fines is peculiar, considering that the kneeling protests are such a loser with the NFL’s fan base. The kneeling has a provably negative effect on the league’s bottom line. Profits are hurt as a direct result of kneeling during the national anthem, making them an act that ultimately affects all of the players, coaches, and everyone affiliated with the league. Businesses that see a sharp loss of revenue have not been known to shrug their shoulders and ignore the actions that have led to said loss of revenue, particularly when the cause of the loss is known. In punishing the kneelers, the NFL is addressing the source of its loss in ratings and revenue. It is punishing those whose actions are known to hurt the league’s profits, and thus a proper response. A mother doesn’t allow a child who is ruining her possessions to continue to do so, she instead shows the child that such actions will be met with punishment in order to deter the unwanted behavior. Likewise, as a business, you don’t allow an employee to take action that demonstrably upsets your customers to the point where they no longer want to purchase your product. This is the exact opposite of salesmanship.

Something tells me that that point will not stop the illogic of the left-wing ideologues constituting sports journalism, nor will it stop the know-it-all know-nothings of the rest of the left-wing news media from moralizing over an issue involving a league they never much cared for anyway. They will continue to moralize and politicize while never realizing that their opinions are entirely irrelevant. What is relevant is the collective opinion of millions of fans who saw these incoherent protests and said “enough”.

Why the Protests are Ineffective

That brings us to the issue of the kneeling itself. Many argue that this is in itself an act of patriotism, that protesting the anthem in the name of injustice is as American as eating apple pie in a muscle car. Allow me to suggest that protesting the anthem is the exact opposite of patriotism and is only detrimental to whatever it is one is protesting. The anthem isn’t supposed to be about abstract symbolizations of individual political stances, the anthem is about celebrating that which unifies all Americans. There are other avenues of protest and choosing this particular one to do so is akin to being that guy who protests saying grace before a family dinner because of whatever beef he has with the supposed moral failures of Christendom. It’s inane, obtuse, and about as useful as having your mouth on your elbow. It’s simply a jerk move. Rather than using that which unifies our country to further divide it, perhaps choosing a more useful avenue – one where the message can be more precisely (and thus effectively) articulated rather than abstractly symbolized – would help further the conversation. That, however, is the main problem – the kneelers are poor communicators. They protest at an absurd time in an absurd way – by protesting a celebration of our most deeply held, universally shared values in an abstract fashion.

And therein lies the biggest communicative problem for the kneelers – their protest is centered around an abstract symbol. Not a catch phrase, not signs with their message concisely articulated, not effective chanting, but an abstract symbol – kneeling. As such, their protest is open to multiple interpretations, rendering whatever their message actually is irrelevant. What one person thinks is “protesting injustice”, another person thinks is a sign of disrespect. Trying to tell the person who sees the kneeling during the national anthem as a sign of disrespect that they’re “wrong” doesn’t help change his mind. It’s like telling someone who is convinced that “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie that it isn’t, in fact, a Christmas movie. In short, using an abstract symbol as their method of protest won’t win anybody over who isn’t already on the side of the kneelers.

Even worse for the kneelers, when the conversation moves from the kneeling itself to what the kneeling represents, the answers are lacking in substance and consistency. Granted, nobody ever confused football players for attorneys, but if your protest doesn’t have an articulate, singular message, it won’t wind up being a very effective protest. Ask one player what the protest is about and it’s “police brutality”. Ask another and it’s “racial injustice”. Ask yet another and it’s “inequality”. The reasons goes on and on and on, making this a protest without a singular message. A protest lacking articulate messengers and a singularly articulated message will find itself in a losing position, particularly when its primary method of communication is an abstract demonstration that can easily be interpreted as disrespectful of a deeply respected and honored tradition that unifies a country. It is simply a foolish course of action.

Moreover, protesting during the anthem is reductive, an act which boils America down to one single grievance. Rather than treating the anthem as a unifying moment in which we collectively appreciate America for all that it is – its creed, its occasional failure to live up to that creed, its beauty and ugliness – protesting during the national anthem over one issue reduces the country to that one issue, as if nothing beyond that issue exists or is important. Again we see the problem with the chosen avenue of protest. It is obtuse and awkward, one which forces people to choose between a positive, unifying tradition and an incoherent, imprecise protest. For most gracious Americans, this is an easy choice to make.

To be sure, protesting police brutality and/or racial injustice is a cause worthy of the effort required. Not once have I come across anyone questioning the right to protest in the name of this or any other cause. What is being questioned is the timing of the protests, which is foolish. Perhaps re-examining the chosen avenue of protest would help further the cause of the kneelers, because as of now they are kneeling for naught.