At the NFL Spring meeting in May, owners unanimously passed a new national Anthem rule: Stand or pay. If you want to be on the side-line with your teammates for the anthem, then you better be standing. Otherwise, you’ll be penalised, both in fines and in yards.
The 2017 season was a tumultuous one for the NFL. The “kneel for justice” movement sparked by the 49ers erstwhile QB Kaepernick turned into a league wide wildfire, with high profile players such as Malcolm Jenkins and Marshawn Lynch abstaining from standing for the anthem. Their goal, and the goal of all the players who knelt: to make people aware of the rife social injustices (particularly police brutality against African Americans) occurring across the country. These individual displays of altruism soon led to a more unified approach from teams. Players were joined by coaches, executives and in some cases even owners, in a display of solidarity. The Pittsburgh Steelers even went as far as to remain off the field entirely until the anthem was over.
As to be expected, the paying fans and general public alike were not pleased. Boo’s rained down and millions took to social media to voice their disdain. Twitter aficionado Donald Trump was personally affronted, citing the peaceful protest as an attack on the flag and what it represented. He claimed that by kneeling, the athletes were disrespecting members of the US military and their hard work and sacrifice. He publicly called for any players who knelt or otherwise during the national anthem to be fired. Trumps borderline dictatorial blustering was set up as a smokescreen to distract from the very issues that these players were trying to highlight. By labeling them as unpatriotic he turned the majority of the population against them. The leagues TV revenue suffered as a result. This dip in profit, more than anything likely tipped the owners hand in making the anthem compulsory.
What the players were doing was in fact the exact opposite of unpatriotic. They were using their platform as public figures to draw attention to the fact that America isn’t perfect, despite the commonly held belief to the contrary. They were disrupting the American dream of football on a Sunday and forcing their countrymen to acknowledge that their society was a fractured one. But football is meant to unite, not divide. And so the country turned on them.
One thing is clear: This issue is not going away. Only recently, Trump dis-invited the entire Philadelphia Eagles organisation from their Superbowl victory visit to the Whitehouse. By doing so, he stoked the flames of this highly incendiary issue. Granted, certain players had already stated that they would not attend due to the president’s lack of action taken on social reform. Trump decided to throw his own celebration out of spite, and you can imagine how that went down in Philly. But that’s a different story. Kaepernick may be currently out of the league, but his actions off the field are having more impact than they ever did on it. He has truly become a philanthropist and is using his highly visible position to help those in need. That’s all the protests were ever about.
The League can fine and penalize all it wants, but you can bet that the players that want to help and fight for justice will find a way to do just that.