To kneel or not to kneel (revised)

When Colin Kaepernick started kneeling for the national anthem last year and Megan Rapinoe followed suit, I was skeptical. In the circles in which I run, skepticism is a bad idea.

Outside the women’s soccer community, of course, opinion was more polarized. I was stunned to see people I’ve considered sympathetic to the Kaepernick/Rapinoe cause object to their protest, quite angrily. I even saw people profess to become greater Washington Spirit fans when Bill Lynch pulled the anthem switcheroo to keep Rapinoe from kneeling on the field at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

(One year later, I can’t recall seeing those people at any Spirit games, so perhaps I should ignore their input on the matter.)

I worried that the message wasn’t getting through. Maybe it’s because I gave too much voice to the counterdissent, or maybe it’s because I’m an aging, jaded journalist who knew how this would play out in the media. Or maybe I was looking at it with white, straight, male privilege. Or some combination of the three.

To this day, I don’t know. All I know is that it’s not simple.

The players who’ve really been at the forefront of spreading the message against racism — particularly the institutional racism that is far too forgiving of police who harass, shoot and kill black people — are in the WNBA, as this SB Nation roundup shows. I thought their mix of T-shirts and linked arms had the potential to get the point across. But just as many people outside the WoSo community are unaware of Rapinoe’s protest, a lot of people missed the WNBA players’ unified voices. (And they resumed their activism before Game 1 of the league finals today.)

Today, I have no reservations about the hundreds of NFL players taking some sort of action — kneeling, linking arms, staying in the locker room — during the anthem. And that, of course, brings out the haters again — people who are still so offended that anyone questioned the effectiveness of last year’s protests that nothing can appease them.

One such accusation: Oh, so you DIDN’T care when it was about black lives, but now you care because it’s free speech?

Wrong. I always cared about the underlying issue. Even some of the people who claimed to be bigger Spirit fans after the anthem incident care about the underlying issue. On Twitter and at this year’s annual general meeting, we’ve seen that plenty of people within the rank and file of U.S. Soccer weren’t at ease with the anthem protests, and they simply can’t all be bigots.

I disagree with them on the anthem protests. To be clear — I was never offended. I worried about the protests’ effectiveness, and I may have been wrong. I’ve been in a high school gym in Norfolk, Va., in which half the crowd sat and yelled at others to sit down during the national anthem because they felt the anthem celebrates slavery. If I’m not offended by that, I’m not going to freak out when Megan Rapinoe takes a knee.

What’s changed is this:

  • We have a new president who demonizes immigrants and cozies up to white supremacists. This is no longer an issue of local police. This is national. So protesting national symbols makes a lot of sense to me. (You can argue that the protests last year were aimed at racist attitudes that were so widespread that they effectively were national, and I respect that view. I would suggest, though, that what we see today is at another level — and it’s institutionalized.)
  • That president has challenged the rights of people to protest during the national anthem and remain employed. The only way to challenge that is to protest en masse during the anthem.

I can’t stress enough — if you think last year’s protests were effective or should’ve been more effective if not for the sensationalist, superficial media coverage, I respect that point of view. I still have some reservations about the protests’ effectiveness, but I recognize that, in the long run, the movement may be effective.

My views are certainly malleable, within reason. I’ve written before that I grew up not thinking about issues of sexuality and gender. I was raised in a medium-conservative Christian environment that had a few good life lessons and a few things that have required some deprogramming over the years.

What changed my mind? It wasn’t a bunch of people patting each other on the back for the cleverest insult behind my back (subtweeting, in the modern environment). For the most part, it was simply getting to know people who were different — gay, Muslim, Northeastern — and watching my stereotypes melt away. It was positive interaction.

In any case — my opinions aren’t that important. I’ve rejected what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere,” the twisted view of objectivity that makes us journalists consider everyone’s point of view equally even if one side is clearly malicious or dishonest. But I still believe in putting facts first, and my goal is to make my observations accurate. I didn’t spend 90 minutes tearing apart Stefan Szymanski’s declaration on behalf of the NASL lawsuit because I hate the NASL or Szymanski or the Cosmos — indeed, I found a couple of his points had merit. I did it because a lot of that declaration set off the b.s. detector that makes somebody a journalist.

So if you want to retreat into the “woker than thou” women’s soccer echo chamber, knock yourself out. (Yes, there’s an echo chamber for everything. I did a story on the Flat Earth movement, which has a surprisingly savvy echo chamber. There’s probably an echo chamber in which everyone competes to be the most dogmatic believer in the notion that Donald Trump is from Mars.)

If you want to engage on what’s happened today, I’m all ears. I’ve written 1,000 words here (exactly!). Your turn. Be nice. But be candid.

And congratulations to those who’ve demonstrated today that a Twitter troll, no matter what office he holds, isn’t going to silence anyone.

The NFL vs. Colin Kaepernick: Whose bubble will burst first?

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.

nfl flag photo
Photo by rexhammock

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.

General sports writing: 2010-2015

Selected pieces on chess, football and other sports …

Katie Nolan demolishes, shreds, eviscerates the NFL’s treatment of women

One thing to know about Fox Sports TV personality Katie Nolan before watching her takedown of Dallas Cowboys cretin Greg Hardy and his return to the NFL:

She’s a sports person.

We’re not talking about some scolding schoolmarm who goes looking for trouble in the sports world where it doesn’t exist. She’s someone who’ll gladly go to the sports bar and chat/argue sports with whoever’s there.

This is typical Katie Nolan fare — a bit of foul-mouthed, pop culture-referencing Millennial sports snark:

One of her most-viewed clips: She takes issue with baseball pitcher Madison Bumgartner chugging multiple beers at once, saying he’s not actually ingesting much of the beer. So she figures out a way to drink six at once.

It’s like the Beer Mile, except she drank more beer and didn’t run.

She does mail segments where she tackles issues like her favorite beers, makeup, and whether “Crossfit Guys” or “Marathon Guys” are more pretentious (New England Revolution shoutout at 4:52):

Basically, this is not some wine-sipping woman in yoga pants whose sports experience is limited to their kids’ travel lacrosse games. (No offense to my yoga class. Just saying I’d be surprised if she hung out with you all.) She’s the woman who hangs around the frat house to watch football and chug Coors Light.

So, National Football League and its hangers-on — when you’ve lost Katie Nolan, you’ve stepped in it. Big time.

And rest assured, pro football folks — by laughing along with Greg Hardy when he comes back from a suspension for a horrific assault of his ex-girlfriend with leering comments about Tom Brady’s wife and tone-deaf talk about “guns blazing,” you’ve lost Katie Nolan.

And let me explain something to the bros on Twitter, the last refuge for dirtbaggery in America, who are desperately trying to make up for their insecurities with tweets aimed at putting Nolan back in her place: You’re garbage. You are human only in the sense that you barely possess enough of the DNA that makes you a biped mammal. You are so stupid that companies are literally building business plans that take advantage of your delusions. (See DraftKings. Want to know how they get enough money to advertise 24/7?)

I’ll focus on the positive, from another sports commentator worth watching, Scott Van Pelt.

What he said. Do your thing, Katie. And I hope it inspires more women to stand up to dumbass men.


Rugby rules could spice up NFL extra point

The NFL’s proposal to move the extra point back 23 yards has landed like a lead balloon.

As it should. It’s silly. It messes up the flow of the game, moving everyone back to the 25-yard line (unless they’re going for two, which would still be at close range).

Here’s an idea: Think back to why a touchdown is called a “touchdown.” American football’s history is intertwined with rugby, where the equivalent of a touchdown (inexplicably called a “try”) requires that the ball literally be touched down.

And the location, from left to right, matters. The placement of the ball on the try determines where the kicker will attempt the conversion. That’s why you’ll see rugby players cross the line but then run toward the center of the field before touching the ball down.

So why not try that in the NFL? Throw for the corner? Congratulations — you’ve left your kicker a tough angle.

The rugby-NFL revolving door

While researching my next piece for OZY, I came across two stories of rugby players in the NFL — one on the way in, one on the way out:

– Hayden Smith, formerly a college basketball player, is returning to Saracens after playing for the New York Jets. Smith is from Australia but has played international rugby for the USA.

– Fleet-footed (4.22 40-yard dash!) Carlin Isles has signed with Detroit’s practice squad.

If you’re debating the world’s best athletes, you have to consider soccer and basketball players for the mix of strength, speed, endurance and skill their sports require. But you have to consider rugby players as well.

Icing the kicker, or why coaches are sometimes wrong

Journalists (and fans) love to second-guess coaches. Honestly, they’re rarely on solid ground. We don’t see everything in practice and team meetings. Coaching staffs sometimes spend 80 hours a week going over game plans in minute detail, and journalists (and fans) simply can’t match that depth of knowledge.

Asking about a particular decision is one thing. That’s illuminating. We can learn more about the game that way — if the coach’s reasons can be made public. Armchair coaching, on the other hand, is usually ridiculous.

But sometimes, those of us in the pressbox or the stands can see the forest for the trees. Or we can see a blind spot or bias that forces a bad move. One example: In retrospect, D.C. United’s handling of Freddy Adu was far from ideal, particularly when Peter Nowak pulled him out of a playoff game in which he was supplying plenty of creativity that replacement Matias Donnet did not.

And coaches are often playing hunches that just don’t add up. I’m convinced NFL coaches are doing just that when they call time out to “ice” the kicker.

The problems with icing:

A. Without the timeout, kickers may be rushed to get their kicks away. So many things can go wrong with the snap, the hold or the kick. Calling timeout gives everyone a chance to get in place.

B. The timeout sometimes comes so late that the kicker gets a practice kick. Then he has a chance to check the wind, check his footing and make any other correction.

C. That’s one timeout gone. Suppose the kicker puts his team ahead, and you have to come back and drive the length of the field? That timeout would’ve been useful, right?

I’m going to keep an eye out for the rest of the season — I’m sure I’ll find several really bad icing calls. (Yes, I must be overcompensating for the lack of hockey this season.)

Example #1: Giants-Eagles, Sept. 30. New York kicker Lawrence Tynes misses a 54-yard field goal for the win, but Philly coach Andy Reid had called a late timeout. See Problem B above. Tynes corrected the flight of the ball on his second attempt, but he came up a yard short to bail out Reid. Three more feet on that kick, and Reid is being vilified this morning.