Our long national nightmare is over. The National Football League outlawed national anthem kneeling on Wednesday.
“This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell explained in a statement. “Personnel who choose not to stand for the Anthem may stay in the locker room until after the Anthem has been performed. We believe today’s decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it — and on our fans who enjoy it.”
Keeping the focus on the football makes sense. Since Colin Kaepernick first sat during “The Star Spangled Banner” before a 2016 preseason game, the NFL gave its fans the greatest comeback in the game’s history in Super Bowl 51 and a barnburner that awarded Philadelphia its first NFL championship since the Eisenhower administration in the latest installment of the big game. When fans focus on Stefon Diggs’s 61-yard miracle playoff touchdown reception to propel the Vikings over the Saints, they really, really like the product. When the takeaway from every Sunday revolves around how many players knelt, spectators look away.
Though even at the height of the phenomenon just a small percentage of the players knelt, the spectacle of millionaire athletes disrespecting the country that made them rich proved so offputting to fans that television ratings tanked. Ratings declined by 10 percent in 2017 over the previous season. And in 2016, when the league lamely attempted to blame the presidential election, the numbers dropped by 8 percent. While numerous factors contributed to the sharp decline in viewers, the kneelers undoubtedly wrestled the ratings down the most.
Poll after poll after poll showed that clear majorities disagreed with the anthem protesters. Diving deep into the internals of various polls, one encountered strong evidence that the NFL’s core audience hated the protests in greater numbers than people less apt to watch. And when asked, jaded viewers cited the protests as the reason for why they stopped watching.
The decision may prove too little, too late for some especially disgusted fans finding new Sunday pastimes. But it once again makes the game the main attraction rather than something overshadowed in media coverage by a distraction. Jock journalists, so bored with the sports they cover that they periodically transform the sports page into the op-ed section, naturally object to replacing the sideshow with the circus.
Mike Freeman, who reports on the NFL for Bleacher Report, described the decision as “more horribly, stupidly, disgracefully, terribly wrong” than any such in recent league history. Sports Illustrated’s Conor Orr called the new policy “spineless.” Deadspin’s Dom Cosentino wrote a piece in response to the announcement called, “The NFL Can’t Stop Shooting Itself in the D—.”
In each case, the writers downplayed the wrath of the fans and instead pushed a narrative that the move represented the league’s fear of invoking the wrath of the president. But Donald Trump, in speaking out against the kneelers last season, merely vocalized something that Americans — ones without the perches awarded by Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and Deadspin — think. He jumped not so much behind the bully pulpit as he did on a bandwagon.
Football brings us together. Anthem kneelers tore us apart.
The NFL’s decision, reached with an abstention from the San Francisco 49ers but no opposition, reflects public opinion, makes good business sense, and does not violate the First Amendment. In no workplace in the country do employees possess the right to engage in political protest on the company dime on the company time. But the total-politics tic views social justice as the point of comedy, scouting, awards shows, journalism, football, and everything else. The NFL humoring such people led to its audience viewing, and doing, something else.
Wednesday’s announcement marked an escape from wreckers ruining a great game with non sequitur protests. This means football again works as an escape for fans made a captive audience for the past two seasons by gridiron warriors cum social justice warriors.