The National Football League would have the American public believe that it has always been for player individuality and self-expression – except that it really isn’t.
When cop-bashing, disgruntled quarterback Colin Kaepernick spearheaded a conflagration of protests during the national anthem, of all the times to pick, the NFL has been oddly tolerant of the political demonstrations to the point of obviously tacit support.
Now, since the NFL’s ensuing public image crisis has fully taken hold, having led to plummeting ratings, declining ad revenue, and half-empty stadiums, the league thinks that football fans are ignorant. Or have retrograde amnesia. Or both.
It has unveiled a “my cleat, my cause” PR campaign to convince fans of its newfound allowance of player “individuality” (if that’s the window dressing the league’s going with). This sudden tolerance of player self-expression apparently applies retroactively to the period before the anthem protests; by rule, a time when players were expected to stand at attention with helmets off and facing the flag.
The game operations manual, which applies to NFL personnel behavior and protocol, is explicit about what is expected of players. Sports Illustrated cites the NFL’s own verbiage:
“The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem. During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.”
Roger Goodell’s verdict? Throw all that “respect for the flag and our country” business out the window. We’re suddenly going to let players do whatever they want on the sidelines, given “the cause.”
About that cause: Besides the fact that the non-voting “citizen of the year” Kaepernick is a renowned police-basher who has compared cops to “runaway slave patrols,” there’s also the matter that the entire premise of his protest is based on a lie. Forget the metastasization of it into some amorphous call for “racial equality.”
No one seriously opposes that. Nor do thoughtful people deny that forms of racial discrimination exist in the country.
But as a Harvard study showed, white police do not kill black Americans at any higher rate than white Americans; so, the entire demonstration is a form of “reverse awareness raising.” And it has the NFL’s seal of approval on it.
The NFL has historically fought tooth and nail to prevent player individuality and free expression. Let’s not forget that. That’s why the exception being made for protesting players is so glaring for people who actually watch and follow the sport. It was once so draconian that it was referred to as the “No Fun League.”
In 2006, the league instituted the “excessive celebration” rule to cut down on all those zealous touchdown dances fans hate so much. (This is sarcastic.) The NFL got the reputation of being a “stiff” organization, which had iron-clad rules to prevent taunting, celebrations, and general merry-making on the field.
In 2006, the NFL started cracking down even harder on touchdown celebrations. Although the league vowed to loosen up slightly in 2017, and allowed a few more variations of celebrating, the NFL has been as vigilant as ever against ‘individualist’ player behavior on the field.
In 2016, according to Pro Football Reference, there were 77 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and 29 taunting penalties; either can result from a type of celebration in the endzone. In 2017, the pace is virtually the same with 41 unsportsmanlike conducts and 14 taunting penalties. Not only can a player be penalized for these post-play “spontaneous expressions of exuberance,” they can also be fined.
Want to criticize a referee for making a bad call? You can get fined for that, too.
Not only is protesting during the national anthem arguably the ultimate case of “unsportsmanlike conduct,” it’s not even an infraction against an opposing team: It’s a flagrant affront to the military men and women, not to mention law enforcement officers, who have sacrificed their lives defending the freedom that players insult with their actions.
It should not be forgotten that NFL players in the past also wanted to customize their playing gear, including cleats. They were fined for it, as the National Football League’s own website points out. Although it has since loosed restrictions on cleats, players can still be fined for not adhering to the league’s guidelines on footwear.
That brings us to the “my cleats, my cause” NFL campaign. Although it was also held for Week 13 in 2016, it is such a stark divergence from the league’s history of ruling player behavior with an iron fist – national anthem protest, aside – that it comes across as an attempt to whitewash the league’s past and its tolerance of disrespectful player behavior.
Don’t get me wrong: The causes across the board are absolutely worthy; admirable, even. No one is opposed to raising awareness for the American Cancer Society, like the Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry chose for his cause. Or the Special Olympics, like the Denver Broncos’ Jamaal Charles, among others. Or Russell Wilson’s choice of the Seattle Children’s hospital.
The inclusion of the Wounded Warrior Project by Morgan Fox of the Los Angeles Rams and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department by Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Jaguars are noble mentions. It is reassuring to know that not all NFL players are aboard the anti-military, anti-police message of left-wing activist players like Marshawn Lynch.
Despite the worthy causes in this year’s edition of “my cleats, my cause,” there is also the cause that is still looming large over the league: That of Colin Kaepernick. That’s who Rishard Matthews chose to “honor” with his cleat choice for this Sunday’s game:
“I dont have a foundation,” Matthews wrote on Instagram, “so i have chosen to support my brother @kaepernick7 foundation @yourrightscamp for #MyCauseMyCleats He has paid the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring true everyday issues to light. Please follow the page & go to the website to learn more. We Should ALL Know Our Rights & Be Able to Express Them Freely.”
If the NFL considers players tearing down a once respectful league to be a worthy “cause,” then it is highly mistaken. Its allowance and even encouragement of players to display ingratitude for the freedom and security provided by U.S. military and law enforcement isn’t about self-expression, it’s about showing basic respect.
No one is disputing that players have the “right” to protest. The NFL has the “right” to forbid it. And fans have a “right” too: The right to change the channel and watch something else.
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