NFL’s new policy on national anthem protests is league’s latest blunder

May 23, 2018, 8:49 PM | Updated: 8:50 pm

FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, file photo, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and qu...

FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, file photo, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Controversy is a slippery football. Somehow, the NFL always fumbles.

The new policy on national anthem protests is just the latest blunder, further proof that greedy hands can’t be trusted.

By unilaterally deciding to fine teams for players who refuse to stand for the “Star Spangled Banner,” the league has thrown gasoline on a dying fire, rekindling the most damaging issue in Roger Goodell’s tenure as commissioner. Those who don’t like the new rules are welcome to remain in the locker room, protesting without an audience, like a tree that falls in the forest.

The issue has become distorted beyond recognition. The American flag is a symbol of our freedom and diversity, not just our military. Players that take a knee during the anthem are not traitors or Communists. Only an idiot would disrespect those who sacrifice their lives to serve our country.

But our country has become dangerously divided, incapable of appreciating nuance or dissenting opinions. Meanwhile, the NFL has wrapped itself in the American flag, partnering with and honoring our armed forces with elaborate pre-game presentations. The marketing strategy was brilliant, glorifying the courage of real-life soldiers and their sporting equivalent.

And then Colin Kaepernick took a knee.

Like all businesses, the NFL is deeply committed to the pursuit of profit. Anthem protests have hurt the bottom line more than the concussion epidemic or domestic violence episodes. Stadiums are their storefronts, and from an economic standpoint, no business should allow employees to alienate customers. Especially when fans value sporting events to escape politics and real-world problems.

But the NFL turned its back on an easy fix. It could’ve moved the national anthem away from the opening kickoff, to a time when teams are ensconced in the locker room, wholly focused on last-minute preparations. It opted for the confrontational approach, pacifying those appalled by the NFL’s fence-sitting tolerance in 2017, only to exchange one angry fan base for another.

The new rule has polarized the audience once again, overshadowing rules changes that will actually influence the on-field product. Former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels tweeted that he hopes the NFL will halt all concession sales during the anthem because “we wouldn’t want people buying a $10 beer and an $8 hot dog during our sacred anthem.” Filmmaker Michael Moore said, “What better time to curtain free speech than during the National Anthem!” Some claimed it was a political gift to President Trump, while others decided the NFL now stands for No Fans Left.

The spin control is obvious. By aligning with its conservative audience, Goodell has shifted the outrage over anthem protests to the NFL Players Association, which must fight the perceived suppression of individuality and free speech. Players must choose between their convictions and their value to employers, which will be subjected to unspecified fines.

As a result, the NFL has further alienated its most important asset, the fiercely proud men who give their bodies and their golden years to an unforgiving profession. No other sport has cultivated a more toxic level of distrust among its athletes, a stark contrast to how NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has empowered his players, creating the illusion of partnership.

The noise is only beginning. Jets co-owner Christopher Johnson responded by vowing to pay any fines his players might incur for kneeling during the anthem, endearing himself to those in the locker room. He won’t be the only one, and as a result, the NFL has placed its owners in a precarious position.

Super Bowls are won with solidarity, with athletes who dig deep when it hurts the most … because they are playing for something bigger, because the cause outweighs the gauze. Because the intrinsic rewards are worth the price they pay down the road.

For too long, the NFL has undervalued the nobility and warrior’s code that fuels their most passionate players. The league consistently values profit over people, ignorant that an invested relationship would only expand their goldmine. And in this particular case, Goodell has solved one problem while exacerbating another, further souring the relationship with the men who serve his sport with the same fervor as the men who serve our country. The ones who have made the NFL the most popular pastime in America.

In the end, the heavy-handed response to the anthem controversy is just another fumble from a league that should understand forced patriotism is no patriotism at all. And the men who take the field should matter far more than the uniform they are gifted.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com.  Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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