On Memorial Day, the U.S. honors fallen veterans but against that backdrop, a sizable cohort of sports fandom has concluded that the National Football League take-a-knee player protests show a lack of respect for the military and the American flag.
Following on the controversy that has gone on for two seasons so far, the NFL last week announced a new policy for the national anthem that has not scored any points with the NBA Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.
Under the policy, players must stand for the “Star-Spangled Banner” or stay in the locker room while it is played or sung in pre-game ceremonies. The NFL will hand out fines for noncompliance.
In widely reported comments last Thursday, Kerr slammed the policy as, among other things, idiotic and an example of “fake patriotism” and pandering to the NFL fan base. He went on to say that patriotism is about free speech and the ability to peacefully protest, and heaped praise on the progressive approach of his own league.
Kerr’s team takes on the Houston Rockets tonight in the win-or-go-home Game 7 of the NBA Western Conference Finals for the right to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the championship round. Should the Warriors prevail, they will meet the LeBron James-led Cavs for the title in the fourth consecutive season.
The Ongoing Anthem Protest
Prompted by trendsetter Colin Kaepernick, the ex-San Francisco 49ers QB, some NFL players began kneeling during the anthem to protest police misconduct and racial injustice. Kerr and many supporters of this form of activism have insisted that the protest has nothing to do with disrespecting the flag or the military. Kaepernick himself has not yet made any public comment about the new rules.
Notwithstanding Kerr’s reaction, the San Jose Mercury News observed that the two professional sports leagues share similar policies.
“The NBA has been more tolerant and encouraging of its players speaking out against social injustices and ills…But the NBA has a national anthem policy as well, which requires players, coaches and trainers to ‘stand and line up in a dignified posture’ during the performance.”
Whitlock Speaks For Himself
Jason Whitlock, the co-host of Speak For Yourself on the Fox Sports 1 television network, who self-describes as a non-voting hardcore moderate, is a longtime critic of the anthem protests, which he has argued has been co-opted by the social justice movement and the virtue-signaling liberal sports media.
In reacting to Kerr’s comments on SFY, he recalled that Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson) refused to stand for the national anthem before a game in March 1996. The NBA fined him about $32,000 (equal to one game’s salary) and indefinitely suspended him. He reached a compromise with the league in which he agreed to stand and returned to action shortly thereafter. Abdul-Rauf played a few more seasons in the NBA before continuing his career overseas.
Given that the NBA requires players to stand for the anthem, Whitlock called out Kerr for hypocrisy or perhaps worse.
“It’s some of the dumbest things I’ve ever hear said; some of the most dishonest things I’ve ever heard said. [Kerr] was a player in the NBA when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf got run out of the NBA for his ‘peaceful protest.’ He was immediately suspended and fined unlike Colin Kaepernick who got to do it all season. So to sit up here and grandstand like the NBA is this utopian place, and the NFL is some a**-backwards place for bigots, drives me crazy. It’s dishonest, and it’s a lie. They’ve adopted basically the same policy the NBA did, and no one’s calling David Stern, who did it without consulting any players, a bigot or a racist. And Steve Ker is smart enough to know that. So this can only just be willful ignorance and lying…
“Someone help me explain why the NFL is being trashed as this racist ‘utopia,’ and the NBA, which has the same policy and has had it for two decades, is the greatest place on earth?”
As he has argued before, Whitlock maintained that the NFL is essentially a made-for-television product, with the team owners functioning as producers, and that anyone involved in a TV show has to follow the script or risk being out of a job. (Unlike the NBA or MLB, NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed.)
— Speak For Yourself (@SFY) May 26, 2018
The FS1 host also opined that the NFL owners have bankrolled some of the social justice initiatives that the players have deemed important, while the NBA has just engaged in a lot of symbolism.
“If you own a business, and customers start complaining, owners tend to react…these guys aren’t evil dictators…the NFL owners have ponied up $100 million for the causes that…the players coalition say are important. Have the NBA owners ponied up 100 million dollars?”
Whitlock also assailed Steve Kerr, who has often chimed in about politics with anti-Trump rhetoric, and others in the “woke” NBA for apparently saying or doing nothing after police roughed up Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown, an encounter which was caught on video and resulted in the suspensions of several cops.
“Instead what [Kerr] would rather do is virtue-signal by taking potshots at the NFL rather than manning up and showing some courage of his convictions…there’s no pressure on NBA players to do a damn thing about Sterling Brown, but we want to clown the NFL…”
When the FS1 panel got into whether the new NFL policy could cause divisiveness within teams next season, Whitlock provided another contrarian assessment.
“When Colin Kapernick took a knee, was he [thinking] ‘I wonder if this is going to cause division,’ ‘I wonder if this is going to cause any problems in the locker room around the league,’ or did he just do it?…The players that followed [did] what they wanted to do.”
Since the owners pay all the bills, they should have the ability to set the work rules just like other employers do, Whitlock claimed. As many have pointed out, players can engage in social activism six days and 21 hours a week, just not during the three-hour window on game day pursuant to the new NFL policy.
Whitlock also implied that Kerr and others that share the coach’s viewpoint should look inward rather than seek Twitter applause.
“It’s not bringing awareness to police brutality, it’s a ‘hey look at me deal,’ and everybody virtue-signaling over social media — get off the NFL, and clean up your own damn house.”
In a separate appearance with Tucker Carlson on FNC, Jason Whitlock asserted that the new rule is an attempt by the NFL to please everybody, including the players, the “NFL-hating left-wing media,” and sports fans/consumers, an objective which is difficult to accomplish. The sports journalist underscored that fans watch sports as a way to escape from politics and social issues. He added that the controversy could potentially be prolonged, however, with the inevitable media coverage of players who decline to take the field during the anthem.
Whitlock explained that the NFL had two other options for rulemaking. The first would be to keep all the players in the locker room during the anthem. The second would be to warn the players that if they kneel, they’ll receive their salary for the week, but won’t play (i.e., pay for no play).
Bad For Business
On his Outkick the Coverage blog, Fox Sports Radio host Clay Travis claimed that the NFL national anthem protests have come at a great cost to the league and that the players seem to have forgotten that fans, either directly or indirectly, pay their high salaries.
“I understand there are many who still disagree with me, but I believe the vast majority of the reason the NFL’s audience has declined is because the vast majority of NFL fans want to watch football without politics…The NFL ratings being down 20 percent over the past two years are producing significant economic consequences. In particular, the NFL’s TV partners at Fox, ESPN, CBS, and NBC collectively missed their budgets due to NFL ratings declines by over $600 million last year. The impact of those missed budgets on these networks is substantial…”
Last year NFL TV partners at Fox, ESPN, NBC, and CBS failed to make budget on NFL games because of collapsing ratings. That cost TV networks over $600 million. That's the reason the NFL has a new anthem policy. https://t.co/Q9NsnSMzQQ
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) May 25, 2018
As an aside, it is conceivable that U.S. Supreme Court-legalized sports betting could reverse the NFL trajectory.
While it praised Steve Kerr for weighing in on political issues, the Orlando Sentinel similarly raised the specter of hypocrisy and pointed out that the media failed to question Kerr about the decades-old NBA anthem policy that “is almost identical” to the NFL’s new policy.
“[H]e is accusing the NFL of ‘pandering’ to its fan base when he is pandering to his own Silicon Valley fan (and player) base by ignoring the fact that the NFL’s new policy is essentially the same as the NBA’s old policy.”
The news outlet also claimed that outspoken, high-status stars like LeBron James could challenge the NBA rule but that the players “realize that their brand would be damaged considerably if they knelt for the national anthem.”
Steve Kerr may also have overlooked the fact that free-speech protections under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution are inapplicable in private-sector employment.
The Bottom Line Is The Bottom Line
New York Post media columnist Phil Mushnick writes that the new NFL national anthem policy is about green rather than red, white, and blue.
“Since the sideline protests began, tens of thousands of NFL fans and customers have exercised their right to counter-protest. TV ratings and ticket sales are down. That creates a clear and present economic danger to the NFL…It was a money ruling, one in which the NFL was forced to tacitly admit that it no longer can take fans for granted.”
According to a Yahoo Sports/YouGov poll, 53 percent of NFL viewers support the new policy; approval drops somewhat to 48 percent for the general public.