It’s a key weekend for the National Football League, and the results have nothing to do with playoff prospects. Instead, all eyes will turn once again to the pre-game activities and the player choices during the national anthem.
After a one-week respite by some players for Veteran’s Day – which saw participation in kneeling and other forms of protest drop significantly – the majority of players now will have to decide if they have made their point or will continue to stage the protests.
Their decision will go a long way toward either ramping up or defusing the anger and division among a laundry list of observers that includes fans, owners, Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL Players Association, sponsors, television networks – the list goes on, and hardly any of it is good news for the league.
Adding fuel to the fire was this week’s revelation of a video statement by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who made a tasteless remark on a 2013 wedding video that some felt had racial implications. Jones has been embroiled in a battle to allegedly oust Commissioner Goodell, while some owners are contemplating invoking a rule to throw out Jones and force him to sell his team. Jones is also believed to be behind the comments by Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter that the ongoing protests have damaged his business, remarks that the company attempted earlier this week to walk back.
One thing is clear no matter which side of the dispute you are on: the game itself appears to be turning off more people than it is gaining. Television ratings are down, and aside from occasional blips when a great game match-up happens, will likely continue plummeting on an overall year-to-year comparison, as they have for the last two years. Add in the increasing concerns by parents over injuries, fan anger in a core group of supporters, and sponsor/advertiser unrest, and the game’s future growth and sustainable impact is imperiled.
As the NFL dithers in addressing the player concerns, which include a call for more formal social activism by the league (so far, resisted by the decision-makers on the owner/league officials side), it appears more likely that the league is hoping to slow-walk this issue out of the public and player focus without doing much of anything.
Last week, the league resisted threats of a television and attendance boycott if they didn’t issue mandatory rules on anthem conduct, so further action is unlikely, barring an unexpected development.
In the early games, it looks like the players who have continuously taken action during the anthem have resumed with their protests.
At MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands, New York Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon kneeled during the national anthem, as he has done for several weeks, even while injured and not playing. The Giants’ opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs, saw cornerback Marcus Peters come out of the tunnel before the national anthem was over, but he did not take any further action. Peters previously sat on the bench during the song for the entire season.
In Miami, Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, tight end Julius Thomas, and safety Michael Thomas stood during a moment of silence before the game, but knelt during the anthem. Although the trio has previously kneeled, the latest move escalates their anthem behavior. They had remained in the tunnel during the song for several weeks, but Dolphins coach Adam Gase recently told them they could come out and kneel without any repercussions from him.
Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Robert Quinn continued his weekly national anthem habit of putting his right fist in the air, doing so again before his game against the Minnesota Vikings. Punter Johnny Hekker put his arm around Quinn in a show of support, as he has continuously done. This week, running back Todd Gurley and wide receiver Tavon Austin linked arms, their first mild form of protest.
The New Orleans Saints continued their team-wide habit of kneeling in unity before the national anthem, rising before the song started in their game against the Washington Redskins. Some Saints players and coaches linked arms in solidarity.
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews resumed his protest after standing last week during Veterans Day (Matthews comes from a military family). Matthews this week remained in the locker room during the song before emerging, marking the sixth time this year he has remained away from the sideline and out of sight.
Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, who has sat on the bench all season for the national anthem, stood at the beginning of the song for his team’s game in Mexico City. But Lynch quickly sat down a few bars into the song. He did stand when the Mexican national anthem was performed.