Don’t blame Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for the demise of the National Football League.

Blame commissioner Roger Goodell.

Six weeks into the 2016 season, the NFL’s TV ratings are falling off a cliff. The league just last week issued a memo trying to placate angry advertisers and sponsors, faulting the steep ratings decline (by more than 10 percent) on the contentious presidential race and lackluster early-season matchups.

It did everything but address the elephant in the room—fan anger from the NFL’s self-inflicted protest crisis.

When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a seat (later, a knee) during the playing of the national anthem, the NFL could have done something about it—fine, suspend or discipline him. But NFL commissioner Goodell took a pass. As a result, Kaepernick’s protest has mushroomed from a one-man show into somewhat of a league-wide phenomenon, with many players on several other teams following suit.

But before you cite that Kaepernick has the First Amendment right to protest what he perceives to be “oppression” against the nation’s minorities, remember this—he has the First Amendment right to yell the N-word, too. Kaepernick reportedly did that during a 2014 game against the Chicago Bears and was fined over $5,000 by the league.

The First Amendment gives an individual the right to express himself without fear of prosecution by the government. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—perhaps one of the most liberal jurists of our time—chimed in this week by telling Yahoo! News’ Katie Couric:

“Would I arrest them for doing it? No,” Ginsburg said. “I think it’s dumb and disrespectful. I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag burning. I think it’s a terrible thing to do, but I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it. I would point out how ridiculous it seems to me to do such an act.”

As Kaepernick’s employer, however, the NFL has every right to discipline the “ridiculous” act. Employers routinely restrict their employees’ ability to express themselves—whether it’s at the workplace or even in private on Facebook. Make a disparaging remark about your boss or use a racial slur on social media and you’re liable to get fired.

This is where Goodell committed the cardinal sin of any business enterprise. By doing nothing to deter Kaepernick and his fellow travelers, Goodell and NFL ticked off their customers.

The fans, who made the NFL into a billion dollar industry with their attendance, viewership and purchasing of merchandise, do have a say. A great majority of them simply are turned off by a number of NFL players’ open contempt for the symbols of their country.

So the fans voted with their eyeballs, by casting their gaze elsewhere. The ratings for college football have never been better despite games dragging on for a seeming eternity. And sales at your local hardware stores are picking up, as Sunday afternoons suddenly have opened up for other, more pressing activities.

After beating Tom Brady in federal court on the absurd “Deflategate” case, Roger Goodell probably felt he was invincible and infallible. But by not nipping the protest crisis in the bud, the arrogant Goodell now has created an existential crisis for his league.

Samuel Chi is the co-founding editor of RealClearWorld and managing editor of RealClearSports.

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