Some members of the Houston Texans kneel during the national anthem on Oct. 29, 2017.

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Keidel: NFL Incapable Of Properly Addressing National Anthem Protests

League Could've Moved On From This Issue By Now

Jason Keidel
May 23, 2018 - 11:38 am
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For a sport that so often gets things right, pro football has a galling habit of getting this one wrong. 

The NFL, the self-styled America's Game, not only blows away other leagues in ratings and raking in cash, but also has the top 10 rated shows on television just about every year. By all external metrics, the NFL is strong, unbeatable and unified. 

MORE: NFL Owners Adopt New Policy To Address National Anthem Protests

Except it's not. There are two things that threaten the cultural crown the NFL wears. The first one is CTE, the crippling physical result of thousands of blows to the brain. Try as it might, there's little the NFL can do to soften the blows or lessen the damage when two huge men slam into each other at great speeds. The league may or may not survive this dark science, but it isn't doing anything to worsen the problem. It's just an attendant problem of the sport. 

There's a second, major crack in the NFL shield, and this one is self-inflicted. With more bad, sad, sorry news coming out of the league's owners meetings Wednesday, we're plunging yet again into this cauldron of conflict between the NFL and its players over our national anthem, of all things. The one pregame ritual designed to bring us together is pulling our most popular game apart. 

The NFL just issued its latest brand of frontier justice over our national anthem, which includes fines for teams whose players kneel during it. It also imbues Sheriff Goodell with (unchecked) disciplinary powers should he get the urge to act upon them. So many of the league's P.R. and legal impulses are right. But this is wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Whether it's flags or fines or stuffing players into their locker rooms during "The Star-Spangled Banner," the answers are all bad mutations of sad, old-world thinking.

Folks who say you're suppressing free speech aren't exactly right, as NFL players are employees in uniform performing a function their employer discourages. You can't go to work and give your boss the finger or curse at a coworker without consequences. The First Amendment protects you as a private citizen at home on your terms, not while you're working at your job on your employer's terms. 

But the idea of safe, peaceful protest is at the symbolic -- not legal -- heart of this. Rather than find a way to engage or assuage its employees, the NFL's impulse is always punitive. Dance in the end zone? Throw a flag. Talk some smack? Throw a flag. Kneel by your helmet as a way of acknowledging injustice? Throw the book at them. Sure, the league can do this, but that doesn't make it remotely right.

Ever notice that baseball and basketball doesn't have this problem? Do you see Mike Trout or LeBron James at constant crossroads with their respective sports? (Granted, the NBA mandates standing for the anthem.) It's not a coincidence that this problem has devoured the NFL, and not the NBA or MLB. Baseball and basketball have way more labor peace, more freedom and far less rancor between their unions and their owners. More specifically, you don't see the white-hot hatred in those sports that you see between NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. 

Not to dismiss the collective consciousness of NBA or MLB athletes, who surely are as bright and engaged as any other league (especially the NBA). Nor is this meant to trivialize the issues that NFL athletes are italicizing with their protests. But it's hard to imagine this issue mushrooming into the public eyesore it has become if the NFL and NFLPA didn't always act like the Hatfields and McCoys. 

Forget the NFL's nuanced dances around the problem. Some of us can't help but think that one of the reasons pro football players keep kneeling because NFL owners don't get it. If Colin Kaepernick had a job as an NFL QB -- which he so clearly should -- and if owners simply let this protest and process continue without these clumsy legal roadblocks, we would have moved on by now. 

It seems to most of us that Kaepernick, and those who followed in his spiritual footsteps, didn't intend to kneel every game for the rest of their careers. They were making a peaceful statement in a public setting. But the NFL wants to use a howitzer when a handshake will do. They want to fight when they need to listen. 

My grandfather was a colonel in the Army and was laid to rest at Arlington, and I proudly bear the flag with which he was buried. I enlisted in Armed Forces when I was 18. Few folks honor or cherish our flag, or our anthem, more than yours truly. But part of loving this country is listening to those who have a specific problem with it. You don't have to be a braniac or a billionaire to get that. Yet NFL owners, who are largely both, don't seem to. 

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel

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