Maybe the NFL anthem protests aren't about the anthem after all

We’ve already discussed the solution (such as it was) that Roger Goodell and the National Football League came up with for players choosing to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem. Seemingly satisfying nobody, I suppose the league felt that they were satisfying everyone as much as was possible. But even if they do manage to put this entire field protest to rest (questionable since some teams are vowing to pay the fines if their players kneel) did we actually solve anything?

Our friend Andrew Malcolm, writing at McClatchy, tackles that question this week. In particular, he looks at the fan reaction to the protests, showing up in the form of falling stadium attendance, reduced merchandise sales and sagging television ratings. What were the fans of America’s favorite sport really upset about? Were they disagreeing with the need to call attention to remaining racial inequities in our society? Were that many of them sticklers for the rules of flag handling and the proper way to respond to the playing of the anthem? Perhaps, as Malcolm posits, it was something a bit more fundamental than that. And curiously enough, this explanation runs parallel to the simmering resentment across much of the country which led to the election of President Trump.

[T]he controversy reveals profound fissures within American society. These are primarily between urban Eastern sophisticates and the great unwashed masses of flyover country, most of whom can no longer afford to take their family to even one football fiesta per season because of players’ celebrity salaries and owners’ payments on the billion-dollar-plus franchise price tags.

These social gaps go much deeper than a mere sports league. These are people who increasingly in recent years have felt ignored and patronized by any powers that be, especially those in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. The tea party outburst was one manifestation. They sense an erosion of traditional values, norms, even manners under the pressures of a changing economy, bitterly divisive and permissive politics, immigrants who resist assimilation and seem to threaten jobs, among other causes…

Paradoxically, of the 17 Republican presidential candidates in 2016 and the initial four Democrats, only the Ivy League-educated New Yorker with billions of dollars and an ego to match detected that voter angst. He didn’t create the anger. He rode it. So, he won and the losers still can’t accept that because that would mean accepting they were wrong. It’s his fault.

Perhaps the key word here is resentment, found in significant quantities across the flyover country Andrew Malcolm is talking about. It was in plentiful supply during the 2016 election season, with people expressing feelings of an erosion (as Andrew put it) of traditional values and norms. The media largely ignored them and tailored their message to a few coastal enclaves of like-minded liberals. Part of that was an erosion of respect for America, or at least the American that many of those voters remembered.

So when millionaire football players began taking a knee in front of the Stars and Stripes as the National Anthem played and their billionaire team owners refused to do anything about it, the simmering resentment found a ready outlet. The press was quick to take the side of Kaepernick and his buddies, hurling insults that those who were offended. The fans weren’t seeing players protesting racial inequity. They saw a group of spoiled, elite, professional athletes spitting on Old Glory.

I think Andrew Malcolm is onto something here. And I think most of the media gets this equation precisely wrong. Rather than trivializing the issues that the kneeling players claim to be bringing to light, you might find a surprising number of us joining in and agreeing that there’s more to be done in terms of racial divisiveness in the country if they would just take their protest off the field and do it during a press conference or at some other venue.

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