The Regrettable Marriage of the NFL and Left-Wing Identity Politics

What we are witnessing in the media narrative around the NFL protests is the prevailing modus operandi of contemporary leftists seeking to introduce their identity politics into all aspects of American life, even where those politics are unwelcome for most Americans.  In fact, we actually saw the left orchestrate something quite similar just a few years ago.

Consider the words of an article from 2014 by Neal Gabler, in which he argued that the NFL is the “Last sports bastion of white, male conservatives.”  In it, the author cites an Experian Simmons study, noting, in clearly accusatory terms, that 83% of NFL fans were found to be white (sin of sins!), “64% were male, 51 percent were 45 years or older, only 32% made less than $60K per year,” along with the fact that “registered Republicans were 21% more likely to be NFL fans,” and finally, that “NFL fans were 59% more likely than the average American to have played a round of golf in the last year.”

The NFL, Gabler offers, is “just a place where rich old angry white men can enjoy their world on Sunday – even if that world may be crumbling around them.”

The author doesn’t hide his disdain for the NFL and its fans, whom he believed to be the political villains of the day.  But why were they villains?  Well, his most prominent argument centered on the “Michael Sam draft saga,” which was proof that they were all homophobes.

You see, the media had constructed a narrative that Michael Sam’s draft position, and his subsequent success or failure in the NFL, represented a referendum on NFL fans’ opinion on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.  If Sam was drafted low or unsuccessful, it could only be the homophobia of these villains that was to blame.

Of course, Michael Sam’s draft position and career was much less a function of the fans than a function of facts.  He was generally thought to be too small to play defensive line, and too slow to be an edge rusher or linebacker in the NFL.  But it was never really ever about Michael Sam.  It was about marginalizing opponents of same-sex marriage and advancing the left’s agenda by introducing its diseased identity politics into America’s most popular sport. 

Now fast forward to today, and substitute black NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem for Michael Sam, and you’ll realize that there are striking similarities in the media narrative.  Only it’s not about homophobic fans these days, but racist ones.  The villains, however, are the same exact people.

Two months ago, if Colin Kaepernick wasn’t hired by an NFL team, it was the rich old angry white men in the NFL fan base that were to blame.  Today, if NFL players committing acts of disrespect toward the flag and Anthem to promote whatever cause they want to promote isn’t accepted without question by the fans of the NFL, then these same rich old angry white men are to blame.

It’s all purely identity politics meant to sow division and promote the radical left’s agenda, and the NFL has played into this effort so seamlessly that it has become impossible to separate leftist identity politics from the NFL itself.

To be clear, the NFL could have avoided its current troubles with a simple statement after Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the National Anthem in the 2016 NFL preseason to promote Black Lives Matter talking points.  It would not have been a difficult statement to write or issue.  Here’s an example off the top of my head:

We respect our players’ individualism, and their right to pursue efforts of social and political activism in their personal lives.  However, as the NFL seeks to welcome all fans of the game, irrespective of age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or political stance, we will henceforth require that NFL players engage in all such activity off the field.  The NFL seeks to provide the most positive and entertaining football-viewing experience possible for its valued fans, and its policies will be appropriately tailored to meet that goal in the future.

They could have then understandably required that players on the field stand for the Anthem.  But they didn’t do that, instead choosing to support the players that disrespected the flag in all the Sunday spectacles.

In the past, it was possible to both oppose leftist identity politics and support the NFL.  They have created a circumstance where this has now become impossible, so millions are choosing to support neither.

This devotion to identity politics is a real problem for the left and the NFL, and a bigger one than they probably know.  It’s so obvious that even many progressives recognize it.  Months ago, the Wall Street Journal published a fantastic article titled “The Liberal Crackup,” written by liberal Columbia professor Mark Lilla.

This excerpt stands out in particular:

To meet the Reagan challenge, we liberals needed to develop an ambitious new vision for America and its future that again inspire people of every walk of life and in every region of the country to come together as citizens.  Instead we got tangled up in the divisive, zero-sum world of identity politics, losing a sense of what binds us together as a nation.  What went missing in the Reagan years was the great liberal-democratic We.  Little wonder that so few now wish to join us.       

Guess what?  There is nothing which “binds us together as a nation” as profoundly as the American flag.  From the advocates of FDR’s “great liberal-democratic We” to the advocates of Reagan’s “great conservative-patriotic Us,” there is a general agreement among left and right about the sanctity of the flag.  The only ones thumbing their noses at it are radical SJWs who seek to marginalize it as a symbol of villainy.  And the NFL is now in league with them in doing so. 

The flag is who we are.  And the Anthem is one treasured moment where we get to stand and express that, in spite of our different skin colors and creeds and politics, we share a common bond as countrymen.  Given that no other sport would have been more deserving of the title “America’s sport” than football, for the NFL to enact policies to ensure that its players respect the American flag and the Anthem should not have been a difficult decision. 

But, regrettably, the NFL has instead chosen damage the sport and its future in order to promote the left’s cancerous agenda.

William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.

If you experience technical problems, please write to