NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took home $44 million for his efforts in behalf of his league and his wildly popular sport last year. (That’s right — $44 million — American money.) Quite a haul for anyone, let alone for a guy who has demonstrated over the years, on issue after issue, that he can’t get ahead of his own butt. But this week we’re getting the first hints that the operatically compensated Roger may actually be able to count.
In a letter to the NFL’s 32 owners, Goodell suggests that NFL players stand for the playing of the national anthem before games. “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem,” Roger writes. “It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.”
We certainly do, Roger, and how nimble of you to figure this out in a mere year and a half after 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the anthem to protest what he called a racist America that oppresses black people. Other black NFL players joined in on the gag, and, by and by pre-game NFL games began to resemble a Black Lives Matter rally. Goodell spent most of this time, when not cashing his gaudy paychecks, praising players who were giving the NFL’s paying customers the middle finger and letting players know they were free to ham it up, on the NFL clock, as much as they want to at the expense of those who make the NFL a $14 billion a year industry.
Roger’s letter is welcome, even if belated, and even if it should have been couched as a directive rather than an “everyone should” suggestion. And if I were editing the letter I would have changed “many of our fans” to “most of our fans.” But hey, it’s a start. Perhaps league officials have enough sense of self-preservation to keep rolling the ball Jerry Jones set in motion this week by announcing than any of his players who disrespect the flag or the anthem will be benched.
Roger’s change of heart, if that’s what this is (and if he has one), was almost certainly a result of accounting rather than principle. The NFL, and other sports leagues, have shown over and over that they don’t give a toss about the sensitivities of their largely traditional and patriotic fans. But so many NFL fans, last year and this, have voted with their feet and their television remotes, that even Roger has noticed. It seems to be dawning on him, and on some owners, that insulting the customer-base in not a good business model. NFL fans are patient. But there’s only so much in-your-face disrespect they will take before they flake out, which they are doing in large numbers. The NFL’s TV rating were down last year and again this year. Ticket sales are off. More football fans than just Vice President Pence are heading for the NFL exits.
This still has to play out, and we don’t know where it’s going. Will the NFL move from suggesting players stand and be respectful during the anthem to demanding that they do so? And if they do this, what happens when some players defy the league’s demand, as is almost certain to happen if the league actually grows a spine? Some players have already said they will keep protesting, though the heavens fall.
The second part of Goodell’s letter gives us less reason to be encouraged than the first. After stating the obvious that NFL players should be respectful of their country and their patrons, Goodell goes on to say: “We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions about critical social issues. The controversy over the anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy and we want to do that together with our players.”
This has a weak, wheedling, and watery tone to it. Can’t we all just get along, as someone once asked? And we know what weakness invites. Besides, this is not about having an honest conversation about race in America. America hasn’t had an honest conversation about race in a half century. It’s not likely to ever have one. And an honest conversation is not what the protesters want. They want to nag and lecture, which Goodell and team owners need to tell their players they have every right to do, but on their own time.
I’m not overly optimistic that this toxic mess will resolve itself any time soon. I’m encouraged by the new direction taken by Jones and Goodell, but I’d like to see a little more strength and clarity in their message. How about: “Any player who is not on his feet when the national anthem strikes up will be escorted off the premises by security before we get to ‘… and the home of the brave.’” Now that’s a policy stout-hearted American football fans of all races can get behind. This would go miles toward making pro football the unifying force it once was.
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