The National Football League thought that by enacting a policy under which players would have to stand for the national anthem or stay in the locker room would finally remove the spotlight from the issue and allow everyone to move on.
“We believe today’s decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it – and on our fans who enjoy it,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in his statement on Wednesday.
That was – surprise! – not what happened.
The league overlooking blowback from fans opposed to revoking players’ ability to peacefully and silently protest was a stupid enough mistake. The league convincing itself that its actions would be enough to satisfy anthem supporters was a possibly even more important error.
There was Donald Trump, Thursday morning on Fox and Friends, saying – and, again, this man is president of the United States – that players who don’t stand for the anthem, even those standing in the locker room, “maybe … shouldn’t be in the country.”
Exactly where dissenting NFLers would be sent is a mystery, because the league is almost exclusively composed of Americans, but that’s a topic not to bother wondering about because it is so ludicrously wrong on its face.
What matters here for the NFL is that those who are in lockstep with Trump still have a degree of animosity for football players, while at the other end of the political spectrum, you can see a flood of tweets with the #ByeNFL hashtag.
Twitter is not the world, but something percolating there does provide a window into what a younger audience might have on its mind. Or, if you would prefer polling data: his current approval rating of 29% among the 18-29 age group is stunningly low, but represents a surge in popularity among younger Americans.
The NFL has put itself in a position where it can be seen as trying to placate a president who is widely disliked among a key demographic for the league, namely people who are going to live for a while. The old, rich, white guys who own the football teams might be happy enough to push a policy that they feel strongly about, but aligning with Trump runs counter to aligning the business with future success – at a time when the NFL also continues to struggle with scores of other issues, not least of all the fact that the game is an existential threat to the people who play it.
Meanwhile, the NBA continues to thrive, with Warriors coach Steve Kerr eloquently eviscerating the NFL in the latest installment of basketball providing the moral compass for sports in this political era. That’s not to say the NBA is perfect, because it isn’t, but it’s resonating a lot more right now in the culture, especially with a younger audience – and that’s big for the future of the game.
For the diehard fans of either sport, what happened will not make much of a difference, although it should be noted that going from diehard to not caring at all is a much shorter trip that most believe it to be. Where this all matters is with the casual fans – the ones who tune in for playoff games and drive ratings, the ones who buy a sweatshirt for a sports fan in their family at Christmas, the ones whose top-of-your-head football players at this point might be limited to the rapey guy, Trump’s buddy, and the guy they won’t let play because of Trump. The NFL only dug itself deeper into trouble with the anthem policy.