The NFL between a Rock and a Hard Place

For those watching the latest iteration of America's culture wars, the player protests in the National Football League are an object lesson in cultural insurgency. 

The whole thing started last year when San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat out the traditional pre-game playing of the National Anthem.  Fans, outraged that he wasn't fired outright or at least benched under a "sit for the Anthem, sit for the game" policy, abandoned pro football in droves.  Kaepernick was released by San Francisco later in the year, and since then, no other NFL team has picked up his contract. 

Now both the NAACP on one side and pro football fans on the other are calling for a boycott of the NFL.  This has put the League in a "damned if you, damned if you don't" situation and given it a headache of Solomonic proportions.

A Platform for Social Change

The National Football League is a true meritocracy.  Blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population and about 70% of the NFL roster.  The NFL fan base, meanwhile, is 83% white.  The raison d'être for this latest battlefield in America's culture war is that some black players see the NFL as a platform for social change.  Many of their fans, conversely, do not. 

Twelve NFL teams have now accommodated players who disrespect America by sitting, kneeling, raising fists, or turning their backs during the National Anthem.  By the end of 2016, the list included San Francisco, Denver, Kansas City, New England, and Tampa Bay.  This year – barely halfway through the pre-season – seven additional teams have put themselves on what some fans think of as the "NFL do not watch" list: Cleveland, Seattle, Oakland, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Tennessee, and Los Angeles.

It's no surprise that Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed.  Nor that other black players are unifying behind him.  Nor that, in an attempt to convince America that the protest isn't racially motivated, white players have been urged to join in.  The Cleveland Browns finally succeeded when white wide receiver Seth DeValve provided racial cover by kneeling for the Anthem along with twelve black teammates on August 21. 

Black player support for the protests, however, is far from unanimous.  Five-time Pro Bowler LeSean McCoy pushed back, saying, "In this country, you can believe what you want, but I think maybe they could choose a better platform to state their beliefs."  Famous MVP and Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown also pushed back, admonishing Kaepernick by saying, "I'm an American – I don't desecrate my flag and my national anthem."  When Brown talked to Cleveland players after the protest on August 21, it had some effect: the players stood for the Anthem at the next game but still locked arms in solidarity.  

Blowback from the Fans

Kaepernick's disrespect last year caused a large number of football fans to stop watching the NFL.  In October 2016, a Seton Hall poll of 841 adults found that overall, NFL ratings were down about 12% year over year, including 24% for Monday night football, 19% for Sunday night football, and 18% for Thursday night football.  It also found that 56% of fans blamed the ratings falloff primarily on the National Anthem protests. 

NFL management, meanwhile, stuck their heads in the sand and blamed the ratings debacle on everything from the presidential election to domestic violence, and from baseball to concussions.  They blamed everything, that is, except for what they could have learned at any sports bar in America – pro football fans were fried at Kaepernick's disrespect for the country.  

A more in-depth survey by J.D. Power and Associates in July found that most fans – 26% of 9,200 surveyed – still cited the Anthem protests as the main reason for walking away from the League in 2016.  Others cited NFL image problems and game delays (24%), too many commercials (20%), and the presidential election (16%).  

It isn't clear whether fans are abandoning the NFL altogether or just watching their home team or boycotting "do not watch" teams.  But on the street, blowback from fans on social media has been personal, racial, and intense.  Some fans posted videos of themselves burning Kaepernick jerseys, and even arch-liberal Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was quoted as criticizing Kaepernick's Anthem protest as "dumb and disrespectful."

The Squeezing of the NFL

All of this puts the NFL between a rock and a hard place.  Even before the 2017 pre-season is over, a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Alabama accused the NFL of racism and announced a pro football "blackout."  Two sports bars in Chicago are also boycotting NFL games until Kaepernick gets a job, and the NAACP has threatened a similar boycott.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the TV set, fans are up in arms.  In the wake of Cleveland's show of disrespect on August 21, social media lit up.  A local VFW post in Strongsville, Ohio (Post #3345) announced that it would no longer show Cleveland Browns games, and Ohio Supreme Court justice Bill O'Neill announced a boycott of the Browns, calling the player protest an attack on the military.

At the end of the day, black players want social change, and fans want football without the anti-America politics.  The NFL just wants the problem to go away.  It remains to be seen how many teams will join the "disrespect America" protests in 2017, and how many fans will respond with their clickers instead of watching their favorite sport become a political football in America's new culture wars.  It also remains to be seen how the NFL will stop hemorrhaging both viewers and advertising revenue.

There's a lot at stake, and it's not just money.  One more season of this, and we'll have a better idea of whether professional football in America has crossed the Rubicon.  And a better idea of where America's culture wars are heading.

The author, a lifelong Dallas fan, still watches the Cowboys – at least for now.