It was the rant heard ‘round the world. About two months ago, just when it appeared national anthem protests in the NFL were losing a little steam (or at least garnering slightly less media coverage), President Trump went on the attack, calling out owners for allowing players to “disrespect our Great American flag,” by taking a knee or sitting.
It unleashed a flurry of reactions on social media, and inspired more players to express their disapproval by kneeling as a team, linking arms, or in one case, staying in the locker room while the Star Spangled Banner played.
Everyone had something to say about it, from political pundits to sports analysts to star athletes from other leagues — everyone, that is, expect for Roger Goodell. I’m willing to bet that when Trump spouted off, no one was more angered than the NFL’s Commissioner, who has spent the past year and a half waiting for the entire issue to die quietly.
It has polarized the league, largely because of the’s relentless coverage of protests (and reactions to protests), which has extended far beyond the NFL Network and into the mainstream media. At the very least, it’s become a distraction from the game itself. At most, it’s led to a drop in ratings (anywhere from 5 to 11 percent from 2015, depending on the source) and mounting dissatisfaction from fans.
According to a poll conducted by the Sharkey Institute, 30 percent of self-described NFL fans say they are watching less football this season, with more than half citing player protests as a key reason. Overall, 45 percent of fans report that they “disapprove of the kneeling.”
Of course that’s just one study, and it’s unclear as to whether those bad feelings have any impact on revenue.
At least, it was unclear. A few weeks ago, Papa John’s CEO and founder John Schnatter said the chain was “disappointed in NFL leadership’s response to player protests” and plans to reevaluate their sponsorship. According to NFL spokesperson Joe Lockhart, the pizza chain isn’t alone in its thinking. Other sponsors have expressed concerns amidst the controversy, he noted.
Now if I’m an NFL owner, you have my full attention. This issue is not going away, and it seems the only one who isn’t worried is the one with the most to lose. Some 15 months after Colin Kaepernick first lit the fire by sitting out the anthem during a preseason game, Goodell is still yet to speak on the issue with any semblance of conviction. When pressed on this issue during Bloomberg’s “The Year Ahead Summit,” Goodell stated that although he’s “proud of our players” for their efforts in pushing toward social and criminal justice reform and “proud of our owners” for trying to give them a platform, ultimately his hope is for the NFL to “move past the protests.”
Those aren’t the words of a leader. Those are the words of a person who wants to continue to bury his head in the sand.
To be clear, the Commissioner also said he believes players “should” stand, and that it is important for the league and its players to “honor and respect” the flag.
What does that mean, exactly? Your guess is as good as mine.
My point is that he needs to do something. Even if that ‘something’ is merely forming a committee among some of the players who are passionate about the cause and trying to come up with a solution.
In his defense, he does have some pressing matters to attend to, such as his contract negotiation. Goodell is seeking a salary of $49.5 million a year, the use of a private jet for life, and lifetime health insurance for his family. Something tells me that he didn’t have to be pressed to participate in that discussion.
He certainly didn’t hesitate to act when reports surfaced a while back of a deflated football. Investigators were hired, science was denied, and suspensions were handed down — nothing was going to stop Goodell from seeing this issue through.
And yet now, there’s no fire in his belly, no determination. With the league facing its most serious crisis in years, the ‘leader’ would just as soon sit this one out.