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Feinstein: NFL Pandered To Trump's Base

The NFL's anthem policy is cowardly, John Feinstein says, and could "explode in the league's face"

November 01, 2018 - 6:45 pm

Last summer, when it became apparent that no NFL team was going to sign Colin Kaepernick, I wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Washington Post in which I called the owners cowards.
         
There was never any doubt that if Kaepernick hadn’t staged his national anthem protest during the 2016 season, that he would have had a job playing for one of the league’s 32 teams. But no owner was willing to deal with the backlash that would no doubt be forthcoming from the “love-it-or-leave-it” crowd, led by President Donald Trump.
         
But instead of being honest about it, they filled willing journalists with anonymous quotes claiming that Kaepernick just wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL anymore. Or, that he wasn’t worth the trouble he might bring to the locker room.
         
This, of course, was completely disingenuous. Kaepernick’s presence in a locker room would hardly have caused a ripple. NFL owners have no trouble signing men guilty of domestic abuse, of drug use or any number of actual crimes.
         
But they couldn’t bring themselves to sign someone who staged a peaceful protest against what he saw as an epidemic of violence committed against African American men by white police officers.
         
Whether you agreed or disagreed with that belief, Kaepernick clearly had the right to protest. He broke no laws and no rules. He said at the time that his goal was to start a dialogue on the issue—and he succeeded.
         
Except some of the dialogue, came in the form of screaming demagoguery—from politicians, from media and from football fans who kept yelling, "Keep politics out of sports."
         
That ship probably sailed during the Olympics held in Ancient Greece. Sports and politics are like peanut butter and jelly—like it or not, they frequently come together. In fact, long before Kaepernick’s protest, the Pentagon had PAID the NFL to stage flag-waving pre-game and halftime shows.
         
Here’s a fact most people don’t want to hear: playing the national anthem is a political statement. So is standing for it, singing it and putting your hand over your heart. The difference is that most of us aren’t uncomfortable with that sort of statement. It is what we are accustomed to and what we accept.
         
Kaepernick’s political statement, which he – and others who joined him – made clear was NOT anti-military or anti-U.S., but was anti-police brutality.
         
Most of the dust had settled last September. Kaepernick had been blackballed and most of the NFL media was covering up on the owners’ behalf. Only a handful of players were still kneeling during the anthem. And then Donald Trump opened his mouth during a political rally in Alabama.
         
We’ve all seen the tape of his rant in which he suggested NFL owners “fire the sonsofbitches” who weren’t standing for the anthem.
         
Trump’s rant re-opened the issue and hundreds of players didn’t stand for the anthem that Sunday. Some teams stayed in the locker room during the anthem. Several owners locked arms with their players to show their support for them and took a knee BEFORE the anthem was played.
         
Time went by and, the number of kneelers went down. Even Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s 49er teammate who was the first to join his protest, said he didn’t think he would kneel during the 2018 season. Even so, Reid, one of the better safeties in the league, is un-signed right now as a free agent.
         
If there was any doubt about the owners’ lack of nerve, it was removed last week when Commissioner Roger Goodell announced a new national anthem policy requiring that any player or NFL employee who is on the sideline stand for the anthem. In order to try to avoid another revolt, Goodell said players could opt to remain in the locker room during the anthem.
         
Here’s hoping the NFL Players' Association, which has expressed dismay about not being consulted on the new rule (which wasn’t required but would have been a smart thing to do), encourages all players to stay in the locker room. That way fans who so abhor mixing politics with sports won’t have to do so. For years, teams remained in the locker room during the anthem until the NFL decided it was good business to have them on the field in order to show how patriotic the league is—or claims to be.
         
I’m not counting on that happening. The NFLPA is probably the weakest of the player unions, unable to even secure guaranteed contracts for its players.
         
Goodell claimed that the owners' vote on the new policy was unanimous. Already two owners have come forward to say they abstained. There’s even a Yahoo.com report that there was no actual vote, just an informal poll, leading to the Goodell announcement.
         
“It was unfortunate,” Goodell said in making the announcement, “that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were un-patriotic. That is not and was never the case.”
         
Remarkably, Goodell actually had that right. The impression that players not standing for the anthem is un-patriotic is absolutely false. Which leads to this question: why change the anthem policy?
         
Because Goodell and his owners—most of them older, rich white men; four of them older rich white women and one a Pakistani-American who was a Trump supporter (the Packers are publicly owned) rolled over for Trump and the screeching right wing.
         
If you don’t think this was a rollover, read what Trump tweeted after the announcement:  “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. You shouldn’t be playing. You shouldn’t be there. Maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.”
        
His number one lackey, Vice President Mike Pence chimed in, gleefully tweeting, “#winning.”
          
So, according to the president, many of those who took part in the KKK march in Charlottesville last August were “very fine people,” but those who stage a peaceful protest – “they” should leave the country.
         
There’s really no point railing at Trump so I’ll stop here. He knows how to play to his base and does it relentlessly, heartlessly and without fear of any push back from those who put him in office.
          
Goodell and his owners clearly don’t want to deal with anymore of Trump’s rhetoric and they’ve decided that the fans who have expressed anger over the anthem protests need to be appeased.
             
I always stand for the national anthem, not because my father served in the Army in World War II or because I have dozens of friends who have served or are serving. I know that if I didn’t stand all my friends would understand—whether they agreed with my reason for not standing or not—that I had an absolute right not to stand. Many of them have deployed overseas and they would also tell you that one of the reasons they put their lives at risk was to fight for my right and the rights of others to protest without repercussions. One of my friends was Kevin Norman, who died overseas, fighting for those rights.
           
To say that those who don’t stand for the anthem should “leave the country" is outrageous and offensive. It smacks of the kind of totalitarian government that we abhor—that we often go to war to fight against.
         
The owners could have said—should have said—“We hope our players will stand for the anthem, but we respect their right to protest.”
         
Ironically, the protests were pretty much over. Now, they will undoubtedly start up again—in some form. The owners played the pander card. It may very well explode in their face.
 
 
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” spent five months on The New York Times bestseller list. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—a Mystery in Black and White,” was selected by the Junior Literary Guild as one of the best books of 2017. His next YA book, “The Prodigy,” which is set at The Masters, will be published In August.