Column: NFL raises flag of convenience on national anthem

This latest bit of football flag-wringing really isn’t complicated.

The NFL is a private corporation that has decided players protesting the national anthem, in public, while in uniform, is bad for business.

The NFL is also a publicly consumed entity that doesn’t want to be viewed as completely stifling freedom of expression.

So, on Wednesday, NFL owners approved a new national anthem policy that requires players to stand when they are on the field but gives them the option to remain in the locker room without repercussion.


It’s a decent compromise to an indecently messy situation.

Remove the rhetoric, examine the bottom line and understand that this divisive issue is actually about the one simple thing that everyone understands: It’s all business.

The NFL, which is in the business of making money, wants to placate the many consumers who stopped watching last year out of distaste for players who began imitating former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the national anthem.

The protests were important condemnations of social injustices. They are absolutely necessary and relevant. Check out the horrifying Sterling Brown video released by the Milwaukee police department shortly after the NFL’s announcement. These racist acts seemingly never end. The players are right to want to use their platform to cry out against them.


But fans didn’t want those messages intertwined with the flag. The cries for justice were heard as a protest against patriotism. President Trump fanned the flames of treason, and the original message was lost.

“It is unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic,’’ NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement Wednesday. “That is not and was never the case.’’

The kneeling was never supposed to be about the flag or the armed forces, but that became the perception, and that perception became reality, and the reality is the NFL couldn’t afford to continually lose money over employees who were viewed as scoundrels.

So the NFL acted. It had to act. The business demanded it. For the sake of viewers and sponsors and ticketholders, most of which were decreasing, the league had to create the same backdrop evident in every game in every other major professional sport, where athletes stand at attention for every anthem.

At least the NFL left the door open for a different kind of protest, one where players can remain in the locker room. It won’t have the same effect as a public anthem protest, but the players can make a statement with a unified walk out of that locker room.

Easy for me to say, but while they’ve lost one avenue for their message, there are perhaps other places for the players to make their voices heard. They can make a statement into every microphone stuck in their face. They can make statements on Twitter and Instagram. They can make statements throughout everyday life the way NBA and WNBA players have made statements. Maybe they don’t need those two minutes of a national anthem to make an enduring proclamation.

The NFL is not asking anyone to cover up their conscience. The NFL is just saying, don’t protest before our games, in our stadiums, while being paid by us, because our consumers aren’t buying it.

“We want people to be respectful of the national anthem,’’ Goodell said, adding, “That’s something we think we owe.’’


Even if they believe they owe it only to their wallets, it’s their league, and that is their right.

Understandably, lots of folks aren’t seeing it that way.

“What NFL owners did today was thwart the players’ constitutional rights to express themselves and use our platform to draw attention to social injustices like racial equality in our country,’’ Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins tweeted. “While I disagree with this decision, I will not let it silence me or stop me from fighting.’’

Then there were the words of his Super Bowl-champion teammate, defensive lineman Chris Long.

“I’m someone who’s always looked at the anthem as a declaration of ideals, including the right to peaceful protest,’’ Long tweeted. “Our league continues to fall short on this issue.’’

Both players make good points, but the NFL trumps that every time an owner signs one of their paychecks.

Football may be our new national pastime, a powerful unifying force, our weekly town hall, as American as those who protest the injustices found throughout America.

But business is business.


Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke

Get our daily Sports Report newsletter