The Commander-in-Chief continues to express, in 140 characters or less, his views regarding the NFL and the national anthem. Most recently, President Trump suggested that “[t]he only way out for them is to set a rule that you can’t kneel during our National Anthem!”
While that would definitely be a “way out” (although probably not a good one), there’s another way. The Browns first showed the path in Week One with a pre-anthem video, and the Cowboys followed a different branch of it last night with their pre-anthem display of unity by kneeling as a group.
The key is the word “pre-anthem.” The league needs to find a way, separate and apart from the national anthem, to allow players to raise concerns about racial equality and social justice without doing it during the national anthem.
When the anthem protests began last year, the anthem was the only platform for drawing attention to these issues. Two of 32 teams have now shown that there’s another way to do this, which allows the concerns to be expressed while also permitting players to stand for the anthem.
During a Tuesday morning media briefing, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart pointed to players like Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills and Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who have said that the issue isn’t simply about showing that players can protest, but that it’s about moving to progress. During Sunday’s Football Night in America on NBC, Stills explained to Tony Dungy that Stills had stopped kneeling during the anthem because it was taking focus away from the reasons for the kneeling.
So here’s where the league needs to emerge not as an advisor to the teams (which it has been doing since the President challenged the NFL on Friday night and beyond) but as a leader. The league needs to devise a vehicle for allowing all players to express concerns separate and apart from the anthem, which in turn will make it easier for teams to steer them away from using the anthem as a vehicle for protest.
Ultimately, this responsibility falls on the desk of the Commissioner. He’s the leader of the sport, and this is not simply an opportunity but an obligation to come up with a solution that permanently defuses a debate on which there is no space for reasonable minds to differ.
One side will forever believe that kneeling or sitting during the anthem always disrespects the flag, the country, and/or the military. The other side will always believe that kneeling or sitting for valid reasons does not disrespect anything or anyone. The challenge for the Commissioner is to give players a way to use their platform that takes the anthem completely out of the equation, like the Browns did 16 days ago and like the Cowboys did last night.
It won’t be easy, but it will be the only effective way to bring this issue to an end. Short of changing the rules to make standing during the anthem mandatory.