It’s getting near the end of the National Football League’s regular season, with the playoffs and Super Bowl on the horizon. It appears that there’s no end in sight for the national anthem protests, making the league one of the most divisive brands in the country. Since the league’s awards are based on regular season performances, it’s fair to start thinking about the winners and the losers from the kneeling, sitting and fist-raising that has taken the focus away from wins and losses.
Roger Goodell – After a contentious few months, he recently signed a $200 million contract to remain as league commissioner. He out-maneuvered arch-rival Jerry Jones, the head of the Dallas Cowboys, and retained supreme power over the league’s direction. He now makes twice as much per year as Tom Brady, the legendary quarterback of the New England Patriots. Is he twice as valuable? The proof will be whether he navigates through this period and manages to get everyone to stay in the locker room for the national anthem next season.
The Players – Despite season-long protests, none of the players suffered repercussions from coaches or owners, and in at least one case – that of Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase – protesting players were invited to take their kneeling out of the shadows of the locker room and back onto the field. There is still some internecine warfare going on between the players over the $100 million the NFL has promised to donate for their causes, but the money will still arrive somewhere. Now it’s just a matter of sorting it out. But if their goal was to spotlight injustice – even if that message has been muddied along the way – it’s mission accomplished. Three of the most prominent protesters were nominated for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award, given for community service.
NFL Players Assn. – The union failed to unite its membership in a single direction for the protests, but it did demonstrate that there was solidarity among its members. That sends a powerful message for 2021, the next time the collective bargaining agreement is up for discussion.
TV Networks – Although there have been little blips of upward movement, it’s fairly clear that overall ratings will be down for the third consecutive year. That means advertisers and sponsors must be compensated in some manner for the audience projection shortfall. That’s something to keep in mind the next time rights renewals are up for auction. Already there are rumblings that ESPN may cut back on its money-losing licensing.
The Players – Since total revenues are a key to the salary cap in the league, angering your best customers may not prove to be a smart strategy for players in the longer term. Make-goods on advertising, slowing ticket sales (a Baltimore-Buffalo game this weekend offered seats as low as $4), merchandise sales falling and TV package renewals possibly declining will all lower the salary cap, which means less available money for players. And since their brand is somewhat toxic, they won’t be able to make it up in off-the-field endorsements, either.
The Fans – So far, empty seats, anger and lowered TV ratings haven’t had much of an impact on behavior. That means fans either step it up in 2018, or content themselves to further, more innovative protests once the national anthem forum is taken away next season. A generation of younger players is no longer participating in football – taking away their interest in even watching it can’t be good for future growth.
This week’s national anthem protests for the early games:
New York Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon took a knee during the anthem before his game against the Dallas Cowboys. All members of the Cowboys stood during the anthem.
Before the San Francisco 49ers game against Houston, three 49ers – safety Eric Reid, receiver Marquise Goodwin, and linebacker Eli Harold – took a knee, as they have for several weeks. Defensive end Solomon Thomas, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, linebacker Reuben Foster, and safety Adrian Colbert stood behind the kneelers with a hand on their shoulders in support.
The Oakland Raiders saw running back Marshawn Lynch seated once again during the national anthem protests, as he has done the entire season, standing only for the Mexican national anthem. Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, who usually stays in the tunnel during the national anthem, was suspended for the game.
The New Orleans Saints continued their team habit of kneeling together in unity before the national anthem and then rising during the song. Once again, some players and coaches locked arms in solidarity.
In Los Angeles, left tackle Russell Okung raised his right first once again during the national anthem. Okung, one of the most outspoken players in the league, has vowed to continue his protest throughout the season.
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews again stayed in the locker room during the national anthem, as he has done throughout the season.
The Seattle Seahawks may not lead their division, but htey have become the league protest leaders during the course of the season. Again sitting down during the national anthem were Michael Bennett, Branden Jackson, Cliff Avril, Jarran Reed, Frank Clark, Quinton Jefferson, Marcus Smith, Dion Jordan and Sheldon Richardson. Left tackle Duane Brown kneeled, while center Justin Britt stood with a hand on Brown’s shoulder in support.
The team that is leading their division, the Los Angeles Rams, again saw outside linebacker Robert Quinn put his right fist in the air during the national anthem, as punter Johnny Hekker cozied up to him with an arm around him in solidarity. The two have repeated the gesture throughout the season.