What is ‘end game’ of NFL protest?


Over the past week I had two friends ask me how I felt about the “NFL Controversy.” I had been thinking about it for quite some time, but I wanted to hear their thoughts before weighing in, and I am glad I did.

Even though these friends were on opposite sides of the issue, they helped me to see the “controversy” from a broader context, which gave me a greater understanding of why this issue is striking a nerve with so many Americans.

The way I viewed the situation was fairly straight-forward. To me, the NFL’s operations manual identifies what is appropriate behavior on and off the field. In fact, this manual states that players should stand during the national anthem and failing to do so could result in discipline such as fines or suspensions.

A few commentators have argued the exact language leaves room for interpretation. The more prevailing argument is that enforcement of these rules would be a violation of their constitutional rights of free speech.

However, since a football stadium is not a public, government-run facility, but a private industry run by business owners, the owners get to establish the rules of the work place. That is why, in private industry, we can either chose to follow the rules of the workplace or find another place to work.

So, why are these players not abiding by the operations manual and protesting by “taking a knee” during the national anthem? And why are they not being fined or held accountable to the rules?

In terms of this latter question, the simple answer is that the coaches and owners have chosen not to enforce their rules, perhaps because the language is not explicit and they have accepted that these protests are an expression of a constitutional right.

But, then why, for example, are players not allowed to celebrate in the end zone? Do they not have a freedom to express themelves? Why are players not allowed to wear accessories representing social or civil causes on their uniforms? Why are these violations enforced, but not standing for the anthem is ignored?

This leads to the question of why players are protesting in the first place. When talking with my friend who sympathizes with the players, we agreed that there were probably four key reasons for their protest: 1) Policy brutality and injustice, 2) reaction against President Trump’s remarks on the issue, 3) perceptions of social and historical injustice in America, 4) express support for teammates who were protesting.

When I brought up the notion that many perceive these protests as being against the military, he disagreed and theorized that this sentiment was thrown in as a red herring to divert from the first three reasons.

Still, our discussion revealed to me that a major weakness of this protest is a lack of clarity as to the purpose of the protest. Without a specific grievance, these protests impugn anyone who would identify themselves with this country — hence, so many fans and citizens are taking offence.

A second significant mistake of this protest is that it is politicizing one of the few unifying symbols of our country. Our anthem and flag gives us a sense of national identity. This is where the conversation I had with my second friend comes in.

He is an avid football fan and former Marine. Because of the protests, last year, he stopped watching football. I presumed it was because he was angry and felt these young men were being disrespectful. To this point, I brought up the idea that, to these young men, kneeling may not be a sign of disrespect, since many of them continued to hold their hands over their heart.

However, he corrected my assumption by explaining that he didn’t feel angry but felt sadness, and viewed the protest as signifying something deeper. He then recalled one of his more meaningful experiences while serving in the military.

He was serving during Desert Storm and getting ready to watch the Super Bowl while missiles could be heard overhead. Then Whitney Houston came out and sang the national anthem. Her voice rang out with such passion and clarity. Tears welled up in his eyes.

“One of the greatest voices of our time,” he said, was singing this song — the song of our country. The emotion came, not so much for the beauty of her voice, but because in those two minutes she sang, he felt that an entire nation was behind him even though he was thousands of miles away.

Flash forward to 2016, he sat in his living room beginning to watch a game and noticed a single, young man kneeling during the anthem and from that moment on could not watch the game anymore. “We’ve lost something,” he said, “And I don’t think we will ever get it back.”

Both of my friends, I think, are pointing to why the take-a-knee protests are a flashpoint of emotion. For, the once neutral and unifying playground of football — where fans and players alike, from diverse backgrounds, could come together, under the one thing that used to unite us as the United States of America, has been hijacked and mingled with the recent contentions that seem to have swept our nation.

Now, it seems that anything tied to the founding of this nation, or anything representative of this nation, is being questioned and even “torn down.” Regardless of which side one finds themselves, this is a sad — emotional — day in America.

But I have always believed that the majority of people in this nation do not believe our traditions should be “torn down.” Despite the contentious narratives asserted by the media, there is a silent majority that still recognizes that we are, “One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all” even though it may not feel like it.

A prime example of this distortion is the NFL controversy itself. Just think, with 32 teams and approximately 50 players per team (approximately 1,600 players), at its height of 200 players, the protesters represented little less than 15 percent of the league. Yet the media seems to position these players as representative of the league and their communities as a whole.

But what about the remaining 85 percent? Why is their choosing not to take a knee not representative of the league? Why is their position not represented at all? This distortion may be because controversy is good for ratings or it could be that they vicariously live through the athletes that are protesting. We don’t know for sure, but the bias is clear.

So, what is the end game? I think owners, coaches, and staff need to “man up” and enforce their rules. Those who are protesting for sincerely-held beliefs should clearly identify what they would like to change, and what community activities, legislation, or laws, can be addressed to better this issue. There are a few who are doing this and I applaud them by visiting police stations and having a direct discussion.

However, those who are only sitting on the sidelines or merely taking knees when one has the means and resources to do more, may make some people feel like they are a part of something, but their actions (or lack thereof) provide little practical help to those in need and only succeeds in alienating those who appreciate our national anthem.

In our passion to feel like we matter or in our desire to do good, let us not forsake the creed of our nation, because in doing so we would be destroying the very game and country we love.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville with her husband and their five children.]