TAMPA – NFL fans are torn between their political and sports allegiances after President Donald Trump called on teams to fire players who kneel during the national anthem.
Trump tweeted dozens of times about the NFL and its players over the past few weeks. His comments come after several players from multiple teams decided to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality.
One of his more controversial comments came when he spoke in Alabama.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say: “Get that son of a b—- off the field right now,” said Trump.
Same story, new players
Anthem protests in the NFL are not new, however, the movement has grown since last year. It started with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled to protest police brutality. Now, Kaepernick no longer has a job in the NFL, and several other players have decided to take a knee or lock arms during the national anthem.
Travis Bell, an expert in sports media and professor at the University of South Florida, believes that the anthem protests have recently become a bigger deal because of Trump’s involvements.
“I definitely think that the flashpoint for this bringing it into the mainstream conversation is because of the president’s involvement in it,” said Bell.
What did he call us?
Several players took offense to Trump’s comments, and the following Sunday, players continued to protest. Some teams’ owners joined the players on the field to show solidarity.
Even Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who supported Trump during his presidential campaign, disagreed with Trump’s comments.
Any excuse to burn jerseys
When Lebron James left Cleveland, fans burned their James jerseys. When James left Miami, fans burned their James jerseys (again). When the Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas to the Cavaliers, fans burned their Thomas jerseys.
This love for burning jerseys has seemed to spread to the NFL, as many fans have filmed themselves burning jerseys of players who have decided to protest during the anthem. Fans also burned season tickets, hats and other memorabilia. They even went on Twitter and started #BurnTheNFL, which encourages people to no longer support the NFL.
Just play football
People who disagree with the protests often say that sports and politics should remain separate, and that politics are ruining sports. Many others, however, would argue that there is not a clear divide between sports and politics.
“People always want to hold sports as some separate, fun, social entity, and we don’t want to politicize things, and when politics gets involved in the sports arena, it sort of clouds that popular notion that sports is sort of just this untainted space, and clearly it’s not,” said Bell.
Others choose to take a knee
While some fans have been burning their jerseys, others have been applauding the players for taking a stand on what they believe is an important issue. Supporters on Twitter started #TakeAKnee to show solidarity with the players who protest.
NFL short on options
As the NFL remains busy trying to keep its name out of headlines, it has failed to find a solution to either the player’s protests or people’s protest of the NFL. This may be because they do not have many options.
According to Alan Balfour, an expert in employment relations and union-management relations, it is not in the NFL’s best interests to force players to stop protesting, no matter what rights they have or do not have guaranteed in their contracts.
“I doubt that anyone will treat this as a contract issue,” said Balfour. “It is perceived by everyone–players, owners and fans–as a moral issue. If the contract permits, owners could force players to stand or face discipline.”
Balfour does not believe that will happen.
“Invoking the contract would only polarize matters worse and expand the range of disagreement,” said Balfour.
He does, however, point out that NFL teams are within their rights by not signing Kaepernick, whether those reasons are related to his performance as a football player or not.
“I have always said, back when this was just about Colin Kaepernick that boycotting him as a potential employee was well within the individual rights of every owner and his employability would depend, not on his ability to help a team as a second-string quarterback, but on what he, or anyone, can contribute to attendance, merchandise sales and the TV contract,” said Balfour.” The obvious answer was his contribution is negative. I can understand why no team or owner wants him–he will hurt the bottom line and, believe me, this is a business.”
Therefore, if any owner refused to sign a player because of his political views, he/she would be well within his/her rights.
Additionally, NFL viewership is down 11 percent from last year, according to Nielsen ratings. Bell points out, however, that this could be for a number of reasons, including the discovery of traumatic brain injuries occurring from playing football. Bell believes it is too early to tell how the protests have affected the NFL’s brand, but that it could negatively impact the NFL’s business in the future.
“I definitely think there’s some potential for fallout, but I don’t think it’s going to be you know, an immediate drop off the cliff,” said Bell.
Americans stand divided
While people have been vocal on social media, what’s trending on Twitter does not always reflect how most Americans feel. CNN and USA Today both conducted polls to find out how the public truly feels about the protests.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This quote is normally attributed to the philosopher Voltaire, but it was actually written by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall. It seems that Americans seem to agree with this sentiment. While players may not have the constitutional right to take a knee, most Americans believe that they should not be fired for their beliefs.
Some veterans have echoed this idea as well, and they argue that the reason soldiers fight is to protect democracy. It is not unexpected that people living in a country that touts freedom of speech in its First Amendment disagree with Trump’s comments. Most people would not want to be fired for their political beliefs, though it is not against the law for employers to do so.
Even if the majority cannot agree on kneeling during the anthem, perhaps it is a small victory for Americans to agree on the principle in the Constitution. Or, perhaps this agreement is not a reason to celebrate. Balfour believes that Americans may not be equipped to handle these discussions.
“Thomas Jefferson’s fear of the tyranny of the majority is, I believe, well-founded,” said Balfour. “I don’t observe the current public being very good at thoughtful consideration of disagreement.”