Politics & Policy

Can the NFL Survive National Polarization?

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams catches a pass against the Dallas Cowboys, October 8, 2017. (Photo: Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)
Is football’s allure more powerful than the red state/blue state divide?

There’s something that has always bothered me about the argument that commercial enterprises can’t succeed if they “alienate half the audience.” In the vast majority of cases, it’s just wrong. America is an enormous country, not everyone cares about politics, and you can cater primarily to one side of the political spectrum and still achieve enormous growth. Take NBA basketball, for example. As an institution, it’s far more political than the NFL, yet it continues to thrive, its stars are still some of the most marketable athletes on the planet, its television deal is the second-richest in sports, and NBA franchises are soaring in value.

The NBA, you see, is primarily a Blue America sport. Its fans are clustered in America’s largest cities, and that urban fan base leans left. You can build a huge business on urban Americans, Americans who don’t care about politics, or fans who (like me) have a high tolerance for politicization before we stop watching a sport we love. I like the NBA so much, I’ll hang with it until the teams are actively sponsored by radicals — I draw the line at the Planned Parenthood Celtics versus the NARAL Cavaliers.

College football is Red America’s NBA. It thrives in flyover country and in regions where professional sports leagues are far less relevant than on the coasts. Growing up in the South, SEC football (and in Kentucky, college basketball) was all we had. No one cared about Atlanta’s sports teams, and professional expansion to states such as North Carolina and Tennessee took place generations after the college game established its hold on our hearts.

The NFL is different. It’s built to be America’s sport. Its current business model depends on being America’s sport. In fact, it just might be one of the last pop-culture institutions left that ostensibly unites Red and Blue America — it’s Star Wars and the NFL and not much else.

The numbers don’t lie. Gallup polling consistently shows football is America’s favorite sport, and it’s not even close. Specifically, NFL football claims more fans than any other professional sport or any college sport. Again, it’s not close. The National Football League is the highest-revenue sports league in the world, and it has the richest television deal in the world. To maintain that level of dominance, the NFL needs an enormous number of eyeballs watching. It has to have red and blue. The NFL is one business that truly can’t afford to alienate half the country, not without shrinking to a shadow of its former self. And therein lies the problem.

I’m consistently encountering red-state Americans who are furious that the NFL is tolerating anthem protests. They think it’s simply an insane business decision. They’re fed up, and some are tuning out. So the answer is simple, right? Make the players stand. Stop offending millions of Americans when they’re turning on the television to watch football; they don’t want to watch millionaires protest for a cause they believe is wrong and in a manner that they believe disrespects the courage and sacrifice of the patriots who died to make this nation free.

But here’s where polarization comes into play. If you make the players stand, and if you punish players who refuse, you’ll see millions of blue-state Americans furious that the NFL is mandating patriotic displays. They’ll be livid that white owners are censoring their black players. They’ll think it’s simply an insane business decision, and we know what happens when progressives unleash their fury in corporate America — boycotts, protests, and disruptions.

Do you see the problem? Red America wants the NFL to be more like college football. Blue America wants the NFL to be more like the NBA. Yet both are substantially less popular than the NFL. When Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel, he lit the match. When Donald Trump used the bully pulpit to demand that players stand, he dumped gasoline on the flame. If one side “wins,” the other side is livid — and the NFL loses. If there’s massed kneeling, the NFL suffers. If the players are forced to stand, the NFL suffers. Either way, it alienates a significant portion of the league’s fan base, a portion it can’t afford to lose.

There is one way and one way only out of this political mess, and it depends on a word that’s often-used and much-abused: tolerance. Americans of various political stripes have to choose to de-escalate based on a desire to preserve one of our last unifying institutions and — more importantly — out of a sense of mutual respect. That means fans and angry owners seeking to understand why a player in good faith may want to kneel, and that means woke players seeking to understand why a fan in the stands might in good faith find their decision to kneel to be offensive, perhaps even repugnant. The result? Potentially less kneeling, potentially less anger, and certainly a focus more on football than politics.

The NFL is now in the process of discovering what politicians have long known.

The NFL will be an interesting test case for the possibility of unity in an increasingly polarized nation. We’re so polarized, for example, that we can’t even agree about whether corporations should take their thumbs off the ideological scales. There are millions of engaged Americans who are furious when corporations take sides, and there are millions of engaged Americans who are furious when they don’t. Indeed, given our national fracturing and the increasing intolerance (and loathing) of speech and expression that dissents from our political and cultural preferences, it’s likely that the NFL is now in the process of discovering what politicians have long known. In many ways, these states of America are “united” in name only.

Donald Trump only has to cobble together an Electoral College majority to win reelection. All other things being equal, progressives only have to increase turnout in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit to deny him a second term. The political battle is increasingly one of mobilization, not persuasion, and if activists and politicians can use sports to mobilize, they will. Just ask Trump. The NFL meanwhile has a different task entirely — keep together a coalition of fans who increasingly don’t live in the same places, don’t watch the same media, and sometimes downright despise each other. Football is a powerful force. Who could watch last week’s battle between the Cowboys and Packers and not love the game? But is it more powerful than polarization? Time will tell.

READ MORE:

The Glass House of the NFL

This Culture War Isn’t about the Flag; It’s about Conscience

Can’t We All Just Stick to Sports?

— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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