If the NFL wants to recover from the anthem protests, it needs to start showing some leadership

The league needs to find a way to let players air their concerns without alienating a large portion of their viewers 

James Moore
Saturday 14 October 2017 14:25 BST
Vice President Mike Pence stands for the national anthem at a game
Vice President Mike Pence stands for the national anthem at a game (Reuters)

It is up there with Trump Hotels, Fox News, MSNBC and Breitbart: the NFL is now one of America’s top 15 most divisive brands.

Before America’s President waded into the issue of players’ protests during the US national anthem, Trump and Clinton voters had broadly similar views of the league; 60 per cent had favourable opinions of it and 20 per cent were in the opposite camp, for a net of plus 40.

However, data drawn from a daily survey conducted by Morning Consult now has the league scoring plus 38 with Clinton voters – but minus 24 with Trump voters. The difference between the two (62 points) puts it seventh in the organisation’s list of America’s most divisive brands.

Trump Hotels (unsurprisingly) is at the top, with 99 points dividing Democrats and Republicans, in a list otherwise dominated by media organisations including The New York Times.

The league appears lost as to how it should react to the tumult. When Trump waded in, describing players who exercised a right to protest (guaranteed under the First Amendment of the US constitution) as “sons of bitches”, and urging their firing, many owners backed their players.

I was at Wembley when Trump donor Shad Khan (who also owns Fulham FC) linked arms with his Jacksonville Jaguars in the wake of the President’s ugly comments.

Other owners made similar gestures and statements, registering their unhappiness with a man many of them had backed.

Notable among them is Jerry Jones, the influential owner of the Dallas Cowboys – America’s team – who knelt with his players before the anthem and stood during it.

Donald Trump denies Mike Pence NFL walkout was a publicity stunt

But then it all changed as owners started to fret about America’s reaction, as evidenced by the survey.

Jones said he would bench players who took a knee in future, even though none of the Cowboys had done so before the Trump train belched its noxious fumes at the NFL’s station. Amid more controversy, he maintained that he’d said what he said to take the heat off his players. Right.

Such a threat would be treated as a red rag to a bull by some players, and no wonder. Discontent with the league’s treatment of them was running at a high level even before Trump made a political football out of American football.

At a team meeting to clarify his stance, Jones pointed out that the players, under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, make 48 cents on every dollar generated in revenue.

NFL players kneel at Wembley

The holy dollar, and the impact that becoming one of America’s most divisive brands might have on it, is what really troubles NFL owners. The message was clear: it’s your money too.

But it isn’t just about money, and in trying to appease Trump supporters they may anyway stand to alienate his opponents. The brand would become less divisive – through angering both sides.

Is there a way out for the league?

Potentially. But it would require doing things that it has never been overly keen on doing in the past. That includes bringing in its players as partners in finding a solution and, perhaps, taking a risk or two.

NFL teams kneel and then stand for national anthem at Wembley

The anthem protests have proved effective because they clearly make Americans feel uncomfortable. And they should, given the racial injustice they seek to highlight.

Yet over time, assuming they continue, they may lose their potency as a talking point, while the orange blowhard in the White House will find a new target for his rage. He’s currently embroiled in a feud with Republican senator Bob Corker that has drawn criticism from even his biggest cheerleader, Fox News. The next flare up might just be a celebrity’s tweet about his unfeasibly small hands.

So the players might be willing to talk with the league, if it breaks the habit of a lifetime and offers to hear them, and genuinely tries to find a way to facilitate them airing their concerns in a way that goes beyond an empty gesture doubling as a marketing exercise.

Trump: NFL owners are scared of their players

I know, I know. I’m asking a lot here. This is, after all, the NFL.

The risk? The proof that it “gets it”? Bring Colin Kaepernick, the man who started the protests, in from the cold and into the discussions.

Finding a team to take him – and goodness knows there are some that could use him, given the state of quarterback play – would help.

In the short term, the league might rise further up the list of divisive brands by doing that. But people would soon get used to the idea. As The New York Times pointed out, United Airlines had its brand trashed after a doctor was booted off one of its flights and beaten up by security. The negative perception didn't last long.

So there is an opportunity for the NFL. Were it to show a meaningful commitment to supporting its players’ push for social justice, then who knows – it might go some way towards improving the league’s toxic labour relations.

But it would first have to do something that doesn't seem to come all that easily to it: it would have to show some leadership.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in