Week three of the 2017 NFL season turned out to be a historic few days. Almost every team in some form or another decided to protest during the playing of the national anthem.
NFL players protesting during the anthem is not a new topic. The story began last year with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick choosing to kneel to protest police violence and racial injustices. Since then handfuls of players across the league have joined, with their protests sometimes being tweaked, like Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett and Oakland Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch choosing to sit during the anthem. All protests have been peaceful, including the mass protest last week. Reactions were mixed, and the subject throughout the weekend turned into a bloated mess with many complicated layers to cover. To help me wade through these layers, I, as Sports Editor, was privileged enough to sit down with our Perspectives Editor and Student Senate President Drew Novak to discuss the wild weekend.
The most significant difference between the previous protests and the mass protest in week three was the involvement of President Trump. Trump’s comments at an Alabama rally wishing that owners would fire these “son of a bitch” players, incited a massive reaction by players, coaches and owners of every team in the NFL.
Novak: “[Trump] has no right to tell Americans which liberties they should and should not follow. He has more important things to worry about like his tweet setting off a major war with North Korea, it never ceases to amaze me the things he says and does.”
Marlay: “[Trump] clearly just throws constitutional rights out the window to rile up a crowd.” I questioned why such an importantly objective political leader in the world would make such a stance on this issue. “It’s such a sensitive topic, it kind of always has been since it started with Colin Kaepernick. You have major themes of race, constitutional rights, the NFL’s image problems.”
Novak: “Trump obviously felt as though his poll numbers were slipping… but that should in no way justify anything he said in no way, shape or form. I think there’s no justification for the comments he made.”
It’s not anything new that players and coaches speak about political issues. What was relatively new about this event was the response of NFL teams’ owners. Almost all displayed some sort of support, whether through actions on the field or statements publicly released against the president’s comments and supporting players’ right to protest.
Novak: “I thought that was really incredible that they went to the lengths to do that. I thought it was incredible. I was very struck by Jerry Jones going out and kneeling with his team [the Dallas Cowboys].”
It was a historic day in sports history as a protest at this scale against the President or the state of the country had never been seen at this scale before.
Novak: “I think it’s something unique to American culture and American society that something like sports is able to transcend something so important to our society like politics. Over the course of history, we’ve seen athletes have a tremendous impact both in their sport and in politics as well,” referring specifically to trailblazing athletes Mohammed Ali and Jackie Robinson.
There were many different forms of protest. Some teams chose to lock arms, some chose to kneel, and a few chose to remain in the locker room during the anthem. The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of these latter teams.
Marlay: “It was a team protest, they wanted to show a unification there more than with an anthem protest.”
However, not all the Steelers’ players remained in the locker room. Offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, chose to come out of the tunnel alone and put his hand over his heart for the national anthem.
Novak: “Villanueva was a special case in the fact that he was a veteran and served with the army rangers, and I very much understand that emotional attachment to the United States. I think he went out there due to a responsibility he felt due to his past.”
The timeline of the weekend played out strangely. Just after Sunday, Villanueva had the number one selling jersey in the NFL, showing many supported his solo act. His head coach, Mike Tomlin, and teammates such as James Harrison publicly stated they would have preferred 100 percent participation in their protest, as the purpose was to demonstrate that their unity as a team was greater than a political agenda. Then, surprisingly, Villanueva publicly apologized to his teammates for going out alone.
Marlay: “It clearly shows his mind and heart are in the right place.”
Many fans responded negatively to the protests, as happened with Kaepernick. One of the continued responses has been the drop in television ratings of professional football. The NFL has seen a decline in ratings over the past decade, and according to a poll by ESPN, the anthem protests are the leading reason as to why. DIRECTV, the company behind the very popular “NFL Sunday Ticket” television package even offered a refund to subscribers who cancelled their service specifically because of the protests.
Marlay: “It seems kind of strange to me to reward people for having a strong political stance or opinion on either side.”
It appears DIRECTV is providing a special service to specific politically-aligned people.
Novak: “I think that DIRECTV is definetily sending the wrong message and I think they’re pandering to whoever they want to prevent losing business. I think those responses are just silly frankly, we are all allowed to express our own viewpoints in the U.S. without feeling endangered. For the life of me I can’t understand it, people need to understand that these issues are a part of our society, that they do matter and that we have people that care very very passionately about these and we can’t expect them to compartmentalize these issues away from their everyday lives. Playing a professional sport gives you a platform to be an advocate for these issues.”
Marlay: “I don’t really get it either, as a fan, you buy and watch these things to watch football… I don’t get how this affects them viewing it.”
This response by a significant number of fans tuning out of the NFL puts the league in a strange spot. On the one hand, it is a constitutional right for each and every one of these players and coaches to protest. On the other, this loss in television revenue could equate to a loss of millions of dollars for the league and the owners. A big enough loss in revenue could push the league or owners to take some sort of action.
Marlay: “If you’re an owner, and you’re losing millions because of this, there’s probably going to be some sort of reaction. It’s a scary spot for professional football right now.”
Novak: “You could gridlock the NFL in doing something like that. I would expect significant infighting among the owners and the NFLPA would have a fit and could potentially file a lawsuit against the NFL.”
We both came to the conclusion that this puts the NFL in a perplexing spot as a whole and it will be interesting to see how the entirety of this plays out. This historic weekend in the NFL will almost certainly have a far reaching fallout, but it was a great moment in history to witness, and a pleasure to talk about with my colleague, Drew Novak.