Dear NFL: Please Put a Stop to the Anthem Protests

September 24, 2017

By Steve Thomas

First of all, I need to say that what you are about to read are my own thoughts.  They do not represent the views of The Hog Sty as a whole or any other person affiliated with this site.  Everyone else who works with us is free to write their own column or express their own views on one of our podcasts.  I don’t speak for them on this topic.

I’m deeply offended by the NFL players’ national anthem/flag protests of the past year.  As a matter of fact, I’m writing this column during the early games on Sunday of week 3, having already skipped the early-morning London game between the Jaguars and the Ravens and all of the network pregame shows.  I’ll watch the Redskins-Raiders game tonight, of course, because I have to do so for this site, but yes: I boycotted the NFL today as a direct result of the anthem/flag protests.  I don’t know about next week – we’ll see when it comes around.  I’d like to explain my rationale for my views and my boycott, in the hope of establishing a better dialogue between people on every side of this volatile issue.

My primary problem with what some of the players have done is simple – in my view, one never, ever disrespects the U.S. flag or the national anthem.  Too many people have served this country (including me; I’m a veteran with 24 years of service; I’m not a hero and you don’t need to thank me), and in some cases, fought and died, for that flag to treat it in a disrespectful fashion.  I believe that not standing for the national anthem is disrespectful and dishonors the memory of those who served.  The flag, specifically, is a powerful symbol of freedom that means too much to me for me to just stand by idly while people intentionally act in what I consider to be an openly hostile manner towards it, particularly during a professional sporting event.  Yes, I did serve to protect the freedoms provided by the Constitution, including the freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean that I have to support NFL players protesting the flag.  To me, kneeling during the national anthem isn’t too far removed from burning the flag, and while I recognize and respect the right of an individual to burn the flag, that doesn’t mean I support it or that I served in the military in some bad corners of the world for people to do that.

For me, the source of my disagreement isn’t the underlying issue of social justice, equality, or police violence against those of color, although I may or may not hold different views than the players conducting these protests.  I respect their right to hold political opinions, as well as their right to advocate for a cause regardless of whether I agree with that cause, and I admire their desire to try to start a national dialogue.  Neither I nor the vast majority of those who hold views similar to mine are racist or white nationalists simply because we don’t want to see players protesting during the national anthem, so please don’t lump us in with people like the small group of neo-Nazi and KKK thugs who were recently violent in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In fact, I think those who protest the issue of police violence have actually raised a legitimate concern to one extent or the other.  This much is true, for me: I’m almost always willing and able to have a reasonable discussion with people who have opinions that are different from my own.  That’s both the decent thing to do and the best way to find solutions to problems, but that’s not necessarily still true for me if the basis of your protest is to disrespect the flag.  Sorry.

Speech, including protest, is a fundamental right of all Americans.  I’m passionately in favor of free speech, to include speech that offends and especially speech that is contrary to prevailing thought.  However, what’s not a fundamental right is protesting the flag, for social justice or anything else you want to name, during an NFL football game.  The First Amendment to the Constitution provides protection from government interference with private speech, because the founding fathers believed that American citizens should have the right to criticize their government free of governmental censorship.  Those Constitutional protections do not extend to the private sector.  No business, including the NFL, has any obligation to let its employees speak, express themselves, or do anything at all, while using the business as a platform.  The NFL and its network partners that televise NFL games are all privately-owned, for-profit businesses who already keep players from doing all sorts of things while on “company time” – players are not allowed to wear what they want, say everything that pops into their head, advocate for other causes, and a myriad of other things.  For example, absurdly, the NFL recently fined Redskins undrafted rookie free agent safety Stefan McClure $6,000 for the existence of an unapproved Nike trademark on his sleeve during a preseason game – Nike, of course, is a major current NFL sponsor.[1]  In my view, by allowing these protests to continue, the NFL isn’t supporting the First Amendment, which has nothing to do with a private business like the NFL, but is actually sanctioning disrespect of the U.S. flag, and that is something that I just cannot support.  I’d rather the NFL just take the position of the Pittsburgh Steelers – head coach Mike Tomlin told the media before today’s game that he did not allow his players on the field for the National Anthem for their week 3 game specifically to avoid forcing players to take a stance on these volatile issues.[2]  For Tomlin, it was about team unity and football, not forcing players to become embroiled in one side or the other of an avoidable political controversy.  I completely agree, Coach Tomlin.  For me, sports is an escape from politics and current events, and I have exactly zero desire to engage in such debate during my recreational hobby.  Just play football on Sunday afternoons, please.  Players, as public figures, have big platforms to use to advocate for whatever they want on their own time.  But please don’t kneel during the national anthem, wear a t-shirt during a post-game press conference supporting a murdering dictator like Fidel Castro, and then go on social media on the 4th of July to say how much your country offends you and expect me to like it or support you.

There’s a reason that you almost never see major corporations and private businesses take sides in political debates or allow employees to make political demonstrations.  These corporations understand that the goal of making money – the fundamental goal of capitalism and the free market economy – is not furthered by alienating a significant portion of the customer base.  The NFL is a part of the social fabric of this country, for sure, but it is ultimately just another business (or rather, group of businesses) whose goal is to make money.  Committing to controversial political causes does not further that end, and in facts hurts the earning process by irritating customers.  In this case, the NFL has unintentionally alienated two segments of their customer base: (1) people like me who are offended by these flag/national anthem protests, and (2) others who don’t think the NFL has done enough to stop what is, in their opinion, the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick. It’s made me angry enough that I feel like I have no choice but to stop watching, at least for this weekend.

It’s no secret that NFL ratings have been down dating back to last season, and while that’s a function of lots of different things, including most prominently the 2016 presidential election and the explosion of online streaming of sporting events, the politicization of football games is without a doubt another factor.  How much of a factor? I don’t know: one can find polling data all across the spectrum on that (I’ve looked).  I’d venture to guess that NFL executives at 345 Park Avenue in New York City are ready to beat their heads against the wall in frustration that has become a part of the NFL discussion.  What I can tell you is that for me, and many others, these flag protests are the sole reason for a football-free Sunday (except for the Redskins).

I’d like to implore the NFL to get itself and its players out of the business of cause-messaging.  It’s hurting the business and has no place in a football game.  The NFL is in the entertainment industry, not the advocacy business.  NFL players have a million ways to advocate for whatever they want on their own time.  Keep it there, and we’ll all be happier football fans.

Do you have thoughts on this, whether you agree or disagree?  Please let me know.  I’m happy to have a discussion with anyone about these issues as long as we can keep it on a civil, respectful basis.




[2] One player, tackle Alejandro Villanueva, came out on his own accord to stand for the anthem by himself.  Coach Tomlin himself also came out of the locker room during the national anthem.