A panel of pundits on Sunday’s NBC News show Meet The Press said the National Football League’s decision to insist players on the field stand for the national anthem could be decided by court order.
The NFL decision this week came in response to last season’s hodgepodge of player protests, which saw players kneel, stay in the locker room, sit on the bench, or raise fists during the pre-game national anthem. The season-long protests were a lightning rod for fan anger, sponsor anguish, and advertiser distress, while TV ratings plummeted.
Players insist the protests reflect their anger at police mistreatment of black Americans. Others, most prominently President Donald Trump, claim the protest is anti-American and disrespects the country.
This week, the league attempted a solution: it changed its rule that players “should” stand for the anthem into a mandate that any player on the field stand. It also said those who did not wish to partake in the anthem ritual could stay in the locker room. If players protested, the team would be fined, the NFL said.
Led by Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, the panel of NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report, and Matthew Continetti, editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, debated the merits of the NFL decision.
The discussion was led by President Trump’s reaction to the NFL move. “I don’t think people should be staying in locker rooms, but still I think it’s good,” Trump said. “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing. You shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
Robinson of the Washington Post was the first to raise the possibility of legal interference, and blamed Trump’s statement. “Well, there’s obviously going to be a dispute that could potentially, I guess, reach the courts. I don’t know. Between the Players Association and the owners over this. The players were not consulted. I don’t believe rank and file players are going to take kindly to this decision. But basically, the owners decided they did not want to be harangued by the president of the United States every week. They were worried about their white working class audience, basically.”
He added: “I think this intensifies it. And it’s going to set the stage for more conflict.”
Continetti said fan sentiment was being missed. “And there is a bottom line decision here. What the NFL was facing, basically, the flight of its fan base as a fallout from the protests. And the other thing I would just point out is these protests began as a racial justice movement. But once Trump intervened in August, they became an anti-Trump movement.”
The Post’s Mitchell said fans were hardly standing at attention during the anthem before the player protests.
“You know, the hypocrisy is so profound,” Mitchell said. “Take a look at any NFL stadium. And people are getting hot dogs. People are getting beers. They’re not standing and saluting the anthem for a large part. They’re not. They’re distracted. They’re fans at an event. And the fact that the players do not have this freedom of speech and that no one is even thinking about (former 49ers quarterback and anthem protest leader) Colin Kaepernick, who’s lost his entire career over this issue.”
Todd raised the issue that the NFL is largely an African-American league. That creates what Todd called “racial toxic tension” over the anthem showdown.
Walter chimed in. “I don’t think this was an issue until Trump made it an issue. I don’t think Americans were sitting around thinking, ‘This is what’s dividing this country so desperately, is the fact that these NFL players are taking a knee or not showing up to salute the anthem’ ”
She added: “The president is taking that as one more opportunity to divide an already divided country. And it has worked in the past. The question is if it is enough to work this time. And right now, he looks at his crowd. And he says, “They’re supportive of me.” But is that going to be enough when you have as many people on the other side now saying, “I’m against this.”
Robinson allowed that NFL owners faced a no-win situation. “The NFL owners really did have to pick their poison. This comes at a time when football as an enterprise is in trouble.”