The NFL Doesn't Know Who or What It Is

Chicago Cubs fans endured decades of futility but stuck like glue to their team.  Ditto for the Golden State Warriors.  Both teams were awful for what seemed like forever but never had any shortage of loyalty.  And when the teams finally reached the pinnacle of success, every fan claimed the victory as his own.

In the National Football League, "taking a knee" used to be part of the "two-minute drill."  The quarterback would stop the clock and allow a team time to bring different players on the field or a new play in from the coach.  If your team did it, you cheered.  You had one more chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Now "taking a knee" means protesting something.  And nobody knows quite what they're protesting.  The explanations sound like one side of a conversation over a horrible cell phone connection.  But we aren't allowed to try to get a better signal.  So millions are simply pushing the red button.

Every person has an innate need to belong to a greater cause.  Even the Unabomber, a notorious hermit, was serving what he saw as a greater good.  Antifa members see a common interest they join, even when they can't articulate it.  There are numerous other causes.

Christians serve a God who "will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake [you]" (Hebrews 13:5).  The God of Islam is less personal, but "All Forgiving" and "the Source of Peace and Safety."  We could go on.

There is a common thread here, most explicitly stated in Christianity.  When someone becomes a true Christian, he becomes a part of a team he can never be kicked out of.  Think about that.  Unless you decide to leave, you are secure.  (We can discuss "eternal security" elsewhere.)  There is nothing your true team will do to make you insecure.  However small your contribution is to the goal, it is still treasured as a contribution.  You are a valuable cog in a larger wheel.  There will be a loss to the team if you leave.  What a wonderful contribution to your self-esteem!

The same thing happens with devoted fans.  They are important parts of larger teams.  The NFL even refers to fans as the "twelfth man" on a team with eleven actual players.  What's really going on?

Every one of these "teams" is selling something.  That is, the team has something you want, and there is some cost you are willing to pay to be part of it.  While some are defined as religions, the others are also religions in some essential way.  And they all offer a reward for loyalty.  Christianity offers heaven, Islam offers paradise, and Greenpeace offers a better world.  Sports offer the hope of victory with the guarantee of camaraderie among those of like mind.  And there is one thing more.

Teams love you back.  The more one is sold out to the team, the greater the love that returns.  It comes in various forms, but it always comes.  And there is one, very important aspect of that love: it is unconditional.  Your team will never reject you.  You will always be accepted.

We all have this great need for acceptance.  We seek out the teams that offer us the greatest perceived returns as long as we can be accepted into them.  And until now, sports franchises accepted all comers.  That was the nature of sports.  It did not matter who you were or what you looked like.  If you were a fan, everything else followed.

But when the NFL took a knee, it violated this social compact.  Instead of loving its fans, it reviled them.  The same people who love NASCAR and the NFL also love country music.  Their enemies even took a knee to say that there was no reason to have compassion for the victims of the Las Vegas Massacre.

"Compassion" – a word that built from the idea of having strong feelings together.  "No compassion" means "we don't care about you."  That is exactly what taking a knee says to us.  You don't care about us.  We aren't welcome on your team.  You reject us.

You NFL players created a new rule about who can be part of your team.  And when there are more rules, you will have fewer team members.  NFL fans come from many walks of life but tend to be strong patriots, even when they oppose the New England team.  So should we be surprised when the NFL's strong negatives reach 40%, as they just did?  Perhaps we should be surprised that they haven't gone higher!

Jerry Jones, the owner of America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, gets it.  Whatever he may have done last week, which was confusing at best, he has now declared that any player who disrespects our flag – yes, our flag – will not play for him.  He recognizes two things: taking a knee is disrespecting our country, and taking a knee is disowning his team's fans.

The NFL survives because it is the National Football League.  When it recognizes that, it will enforce its rule that players will stand at attention facing the flag during our national anthem.  That is a salute to its fans, the twelfth man on the team.  It is also recognizing that the NFL has no business other than football, and politics should remain off the field.

The NFL had a chance to nip this in the bud when Colin Kaepernick took a knee.  But it dithered.  And it insulted America by refusing to allow players to wear a decal memorializing murdered police officers in Dallas.

The only question is whether it is too late for the NFL to recover from this self-inflicted wound.