The NFL’s Move against Anthem Protests Is Understandable

Buffalo Bills players kneel in protest during the National Anthem before a game against the Denver Broncos at New Era Field. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)
It would have been wiser to let the kneeling controversy die down on its own, but one can see where the league is coming from.

Picture the Google homepage. Now imagine that a small team of engineers responsible for updating its look each day attached, without clearance from their bosses, a small emblem of an American flag with a red slash drawn through it, and explained to anyone who asked that this was a political protest they planned to continue indefinitely.

Would Google tolerate that? I doubt it. Should it tolerate that? Certainly not. Millions of users, maybe tens of millions, would presumably switch to another homepage. The stunt would cost Google significant revenue and unwelcome publicity. Knowing this, it would order the engineers responsible to knock it off, and if they failed to do so, remove them from their jobs.

While I agree with my trusted colleague David French that the culture of free speech is just as important as the freedom from government sanction provided by the First Amendment, I don’t share his alarm at what the NFL is doing to deter national-anthem protests by players. Is this corporate censorship? Yes. Does it bother me? No. The NFL would also sanction any player who insulted the fans with a middle finger. That would be corporate censorship too, and it would be entirely proper.

To cite an actual Google case, the firing of engineer James Damore for speculating in a measured and scientifically defensible way about differences between men and women was unconscionable precisely because Damore didn’t say anything extreme. If he had been known to tell colleagues that women are useless and stupid and shouldn’t be employed as engineers, firing him would have been a lot more justifiable, because that’s an immoderate, highly divisive view. Reasonable people would and should take heated exception to such sentiments. Some might reasonably claim that they create a hostile work environment.

The owners think, with some justification, that the protests are doing major harm to the NFL’s ratings and to its carefully tended brand.

Kneeling for the national anthem is likewise extreme. By long-standing tradition, liberals and conservatives alike show equal respect for flag-based rituals. To disrespect the flag is understood to be a radical move, the kind of thing associated with the excesses of the anti–Vietnam War movement. NFL players enjoy First Amendment rights to publicly shun or even burn the flag if they so choose, but no corporation has a responsibility to tolerate the expression of such extreme ideas. Spurning the American flag as a protest against the acts of some police officers is a radical stance that disgusts tens of millions of Americans.

More important for NFL owners, it’s also extremely damaging to the league’s corporate brand. The owners think, with some justification, that the protests are doing major harm to the NFL’s ratings and to its carefully tended brand. Central to that brand is coast-to-coast, all-American appeal. Military color guards and Air Force flyovers are a mainstay of the games. The provenance of the athletes adds to the all-American pride. Unlike the NHL and Major League Baseball, and these days even the NBA, the NFL does not have many foreign-born players. American football barely registers in the rest of the world, but the NFL attracts every demographic domestically. Last season, Sunday Night Football was the highest-rated program on broadcast television for the seventh consecutive year. The ratings for the NBA finals are only a bit higher than the average ratings for a regular-season Sunday Night Football broadcast. The Super Bowl is, of course, routinely the highest-rated program of the year and an unofficial national holiday.

The NFL thinks it simply cannot afford to be seen as harboring a conspicuously anti-American element. I think its decision to sanction teams whose players kneel for the national anthem is unwise tactically, because the protests had largely died down on their own by the end of last season and the controversy seemed to be petering out organically. Instead, the NFL has breathed new life into the protest movement and triggered a new round of angry headlines and controversy and fractious debate, all of it tinged by the racially charged nature of the issue, and thus a publicity nightmare for the league. If the NFL doesn’t want to be seen as anti-American by large numbers of potential viewers, it must be equally horrified by the prospect of being tagged as racially insensitive. The NFL’s best hope was that the flag protests would fizzle without any league action. Which is exactly what was happening. Doing nothing is sometimes — often! — a wise move. The NFL should have done nothing this off-season.

But what the Kaepernickians are doing in the NFL is more repellent to the audience, and more toxic to the NFL’s brand, than Justin Timberlake tearing off Janet Jackson’s top at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Forbidding lewd displays by hired entertainers is also corporate censorship, and also doesn’t bother me. The urgency felt by the NFL to stop the protests, or at least stop them from happening in view of the public, is understandable.

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