About 12 years ago, I was in a newsroom watching the NFL with an editor who had little use for progressive talk and considered many of his fellow journalists politically correct weasels. But he was more Libertarian than “conservative,” and he could see a bit of nuance.
As we watched the typical NFL anthem presentation, with a massive flag covering the field and military jets screaming across the sky, he said, “You know, if we saw something like that in Iraq, we’d be horrified.”
But the NFL is anything but horrified, even after being forced to return a fraction of the money the league and its clubs had received from the U.S. government for heartfelt but also wallet-felt military tributes.
So in this landscape, what do we make of Colin Kaepernick’s inability to find an NFL team, which at this point certainly has much more to do with his decision to take a knee during the national anthem and less to do with his skills? (Granted, if Kaepernick was at the same level as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, an NFL team would probably cross the invisible picket line and sign him, but Kaepernick is still a better QB than a lot of the people snapping up free-agent contracts so far this offseason.)
What we really have here is a collision of political bubbles. Plenty of people simply don’t want to discuss the possibility that this sort of protest, fairly or unfairly, does more harm than good. It’s difficult to quantify such things, and it’s not fair to blame the 2016 election results solely at Kaepernick’s feet. But some people didn’t even want to discuss the possibility that such protests fired up voters who wouldn’t ordinarily bother to vote to get to the ballot box — or perhaps deflated the political enthusiasm of people who would ordinarily be sympathetic to Kaepernick’s cause. To even ask the question invites accusations of “white privilege” or worse. That’s life in a bubble.
But the NFL owners who are keeping Kaepernick out of work may soon find that they’re in a bubble of their own.
The Kaepernick response isn’t the first divisive move the NFL has made in recent years. They’re under legitimate fire for their slow response to the concussion issue. They’re not the most labor-friendly league — while NBA players and baseball players roll around in luxury, a lot of NFL players toil for salaries well below those in other sports. There’s no minor league, so players hoping to catch on with NFL teams when injuries deplete the rosters must keep themselves in shape on their own dime.
And yes, they revel in military propaganda that is ripe for satire. See Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — if the experimental camera work is too much for you, just read the book.
In today’s fragmented media landscape, the NFL has been the one property that has managed to maintain its hold on the viewing audience. A “hit” TV show today would’ve been a massive flop 20 years ago, most sports are oversaturated and split the audience into tiny segments, but Sundays still belong to the NFL.
But that can change. Ratings were already substantially down last season.
NFL owners simply can’t afford to alienate anyone. To be fair, that means they’re going to be a little uncomfortable if a player takes a knee during the national anthem, riling fans and sponsors. But they have a spin machine that should be able to highlight the positives, including Kaepernick’s charitable donations that have continued despite his uncertain future.
And when Donald Trump crows that the power of his Twitter pulpit is one factor in Kaepernick’s unemployment, the NFL needs to wake up and recognize how this looks. Are owners in the NFL, a sport that celebrates standing up in the face of injury and adversity, really going to give in to the whims of a bully?
What does it say about the NFL when an ostracized quarterback is clearly more courageous than any owner in the league? Whether you agree with Colin Kaepernick’s protest or not, you have to concede that he is willing to risk threats and the loss of his livelihood to make a point. And NFL owners are afraid of a guy on Twitter?
This isn’t presidential politics. The NFL can’t win by playing to a rabid “base” with just enough support to carry the swing states. Its success is based on being the one thing that everyone watches, at least one Sunday a year and usually more.
If the owners don’t realize that, their bubble will surely burst. And we’ll all see the irony of a league that celebrates bravery being forced to pay for its cowardice.