Spare me your crocodile tears about the new NFL Anthem rule

It’s still roughly three months until the first pre-season NFL game kicks off, but football is all over the news. Sadly, this heightened coverage during the off-season is cropping up for all the wrong reasons. Ever since the announcement of the new ban on kneeling during the National Anthem this week, everyone has an opinion, including some people who I imagine have never been to a football game in their lives. One critic said the gesture would be “hollow,” while Chelsea Handler took to Twitter with her usual, insightful (/sarc) commentary.

Yesterday we heard from Shaun R. Harper, writing at the Washington Post. Mr. Harper is a Provost Professor at the University of Southern California and is listed as a “racial equity expert.” As you might imagine, he sees the kneeling ban as some sort of plantation mentality oppression, where primarily white owners are dictating the speech and actions of the largely black players.

This is an obvious violation of players’ First Amendment rights. And the issue is inescapably about race.

According to data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 94 percent of NFL franchise owners and 75 percent of head coaches are white. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and most of the league’s top executives are white. Blacks own majority stakes in none of the 32 teams. Only seven NFL head coaches in 2017 were black. Yet 70 percent of NFL players are black. This new policy clearly signals white control of black players’ bodies and rights to kneel in peaceful protest against police brutality and other racial issues during the national anthem. Put differently, a majority white group of overseers created and will enforce a policy restricting black players’ freedom of expression. The power is seemingly not with those who use their bodies to earn $7.8 billion for their teams and the league, but rather with whites who profit most from their labor.

This has long since passed the point of being merely tiresome. One might have thought that 25% of the coaches being black in a country where blacks make up less than 13% of the population might be seen as progress, but that’s not actually the issue here. As much as Mr. Harper and so many others like him may want to make this about race, it’s actually a question of doing your job. Of those billions of dollars the league takes in, a fair percentage of it goes to pay the players incredible salaries. Fourteen players are currently earning more than $20M per year. The lowest paid rookie who spends the entire season on the bench this year will earn $480K.

And just like the rest of the people around the country who, on average, have to work all year long to earn what one of these pampered jocks takes home during the first quarter of the first pre-season game, the players have a job to do. They have a boss to report to. And there are rules of conduct for the workplace. If you don’t like the rules where you work you are free to quit and go see if you can find someone willing to pay you a half million dollars per year for stocking the shelves at Target. If you work in a typical office anywhere else in the country, when you are in the office and on the clock, you’re expected to be working. If you choose instead to march around the cubicle farm putting on a display to protest racial inequity or anything else you will soon be protesting in the unemployment line. If you begin acting out in a way that harms the bottom line of the business you will be out the door. That’s not because your boss necessarily doesn’t sympathize with your cause, but because they’re paying you to be there and work. You are free to protest on your own time.

It should be no different for the NFL players. And unlike most of the rest of us who toil away in comparative obscurity for a fraction of the riches they receive, these players have a huge platform to get their message out. Any time they like they can have their agent call a press conference and the media will show up. The best most of the rest of the country can do is paint a message on a piece of cardboard and march around in front of City Hall. The audacity to believe that you’re so special that you can thumb your nose at your employer and face no consequences is beyond insulting.

And let’s be clear what’s really going on with these protests. You can call it a racial issue all you like, but the method chosen to deliver the message isn’t about race. It’s about America. They could protest during warmups, while player introductions are going on or at halftime, assuming there are no rules in place against it. But these players specifically chose to act out in front of the flag while the nation’s National Anthem is playing. That’s not some comment on specific racial inequality. That’s a shot across the bow of the country as a whole. If you really think the United States is that bad, try Canada. I hear Johnny Football is all the rage with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats these days.

This mess is still the league’s fault, of course, and it could all have been avoided. If Roger Goodell had sprung into action on the first day that Kaepernick took a knee and introduced a rule stating that all players will stand during the Anthem the problem would have been solved. Anyone complaining about it could simply be pointed in the direction of the NBA. They have had a rule in place for decades which states that “players, coaches, and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.” And with all due respect to Shaun Harper, the vast majority of NBA players are also black while the teams are largely owned by white men. But somehow the NBA isn’t racist?

Spare me the righteous indignation. The players have some of the largest megaphones in the nation to get their message out and the league is working with the Players’ Association to promote their cause off the field. When game day comes, suck it up, get yourself into uniform, follow the rules and play the damn game.

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