It may have seemed a victory for the National Football League and its players this week when the league took no action to change its policy regarding the national anthem. There remains no requirement for players to stand. That, at least, is a win for freedom of expression.
But victory in the realm of politics and public opinion is not measured in touchdowns and field goals, and it remains undetermined how all this is adding up.
President Donald Trump has not been shy, to put it mildly, in criticizing the league and the so-called “take a knee” movement. “Total disrespect for our great country!” was part of the tweeted reaction that followed the meeting earlier this week.
Trump has used to unprecedented influence the combination of Twitter and the bully pulpit. As president, Teddy Roosevelt used it to describe the unique power of the presidency to shape public opinion. In the context of more than a century ago, “bully” meant splendid, or pretty fine.
Today, of course, it means something different, and no president has personified the schoolyard bully connotation as well as Trump. Webster’s defines it as: “a position of power and influence used to aggressively promote one’s own cause.” Trump’s activity makes that seem like an understatement.
Criticizing Trump earlier this week, Sen. John McCain warned the nation about “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” It was a welcome warning, and the NFL situation helps show why.
Though he praised the “unprecedented conversations and dialogue going on between our players and our owners, between our club officials and between our league,” Commissioner Roger Goodell was put on the defensive following the owners’ meeting.
“Everyone feels strongly about our country and have pride,” he said. While the NFL was “not afraid of tough conversations,” he said, “what we are trying to stay out of is politics.”
Too late for that.
Broadcast ratings and attendance for some games has been dropping, Forbes reported last month. “NFL Broadcasting Stocks Slump As Protests Rise And TV Ratings Fall,” was the headline.
Closer to home, as in Wallingford, the owner of a sports bar decided to no longer show NFL games because of players not standing for the national anthem. “If you’re a true American, you shouldn’t watch it,” was a memorable quote.
Not watching games would be an appropriate protest to society’s acceptance of a game that destroys bodies and minds for the purpose of entertainment and profit, with the excuse that players know what they’re getting into and are paid well as justification, but I haven’t seen a fan decline for that yet.
In any case, in measuring who’s coming out on top here, ask yourself what first comes to mind.
Is it disrespect for the flag and the national anthem?
Or the target of the player protest?
Which, by the way, is racial inequality and police brutality, largely lost in the hubbub.
Such a question helps gauge the impact of a new era of the bully pulpit and Twitter, and a president who loves to use both.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @jefferykurz.