Wojo: NFL is posturing with its national anthem policy

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — It’s unseemly and unending. All this ridiculous posturing and pandering by the NFL, trying to hide politics behind patriotism, trying to pretend this anthem controversy is something that it isn’t.

It’s an issue the NFL can’t stop bungling, in its effort to appease and please as many as possible, from the White House on down. In an attempt to appear strong, the league looks weak and scared, instituting a new set of vague rules that solve pretty much nothing.

The NFL didn’t need to change its policy, which now will punish teams (and possibly players) if players kneel on the sidelines during the national anthem. The league did it without input from the players association, which expressed disappointment, which virtually guarantees more pushback.

Do businesses have the right to protect their financial interests? Of course, and the players should be cognizant of that because it affects them too. There’s some evidence the protesting damaged the league’s public perception, but it’s unclear if a TV ratings decline was directly tied to it. There’s not much evidence the NFL is suffering financially; my goodness, the Carolina Panthers just sold for $2.2 billion.

The protest launched nearly two years ago by Colin Kaepernick was sporadic and ill-defined at first, but it eventually opened dialogue between management and players. By the end of last season, kneeling was barely an issue, practiced by a smattering of players, and owners — including the Lions’ Martha Ford — pledged contributions to player causes. Recently, the NFL said its 32 teams would donate $90 million over seven years to social justice initiatives, a decent gesture that now smacks of an appeasement payment.

The furor had already begun to wane last September, before President Trump made caustic remarks referring to players as a “son of a (expletive)” if they knelt, and saying they should be fired. So now, the challenge is back on, and to what gain? Players still can protest, as long as they do it out of sight, in the locker room or a stadium tunnel. Those offended still can be offended, and those who support the protests can still feel muzzled.

And the NFL still can take a pretend stand, fining teams if players violate the rules. Those teams then can issue their own penalties to players deemed to be disrespecting the flag and the anthem. Or, just as vague, Roger Goodell could punish an offending player.

How to define disrespect isn’t entirely clear. Kneeling? Oh, that’s really bad. Holding up an arm while the song plays? Probably still bad. Scratching oneself during the Star-Spangled Banner? Uh, maybe sort of bad.

It’s all so silly, not only in its implementation, but in its interpretation. And really, will the new policy appease anyone?

Predictably, it appeased one prominent person, which clearly was the NFL’s goal.

“You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there,” Trump said Thursday on Fox News. “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country. … The NFL owners did the right thing.”

Player reaction has been fairly muted to the latest attack on their patriotism, even though protesting is a basic tenet of American patriotism. I asked three Lions for their reactions, and Ameer Abdullah and LeGarrette Blount declined comment. Golden Tate declined to elaborate.

“The news just came out, still trying to understand it, haven’t really thought too much about it yet,” Tate said. “Give us a few days, weeks, and I’m sure as a team we’ll discuss it and come up with a solution to stand for justice in America.”

One of the strongest responses came from Eagles defensive end Chris Long, a major voice on social issues.

"This is fear of a diminished bottom line,” Long wrote on Twitter. "It's also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism. Don't get it confused. These owners don't love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it. It also lets you, the fan, know where our league stands."

The problem is, the bottom line — money — affects everything and everyone. Whether they admit it or not, both sides — owners and players — play both sides. Players rightly want to draw attention to important issues, primarily in the black community regarding police brutality, but also want to participate in the lucrative business of professional football.

Owners want their league to be perceived as an All-American endeavor, wrapped in military presentations and fighter-jet flyovers, while also conducting a gigantic business trying to appeal to the widest audience possible. Before 2009, the NFL didn’t even play the anthem while players were on the field, which seems like a reasonable way to do it.

But when a segment of that audience is offended by some of the employees, something must be done, right? Especially when an angry president essentially declares something must be done, right?

Wrong. Not when it’s more of the same reactionary and divisive posturing, splitting along racial lines, spitting in the spirit of compromise.

In issues like this, the opinions of military veterans matter much more than others. I’ve heard from vets who staunchly oppose the protest, and other vets who proudly fought for the right for anyone to protest. Players who have knelt insist they weren’t disrespecting the military or the flag, but were drawing intention to an important matter.

It’s the classic conflict — business interests versus social consciousness — waged in the trenches with ever-changing rules. If there’s a suitable common ground, the NFL is still stumbling around trying to find it.