No Easy Way Out: The NFL’s Catch-22


It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a year since Colin Kapernick first took a seat (and shortly after a knee) during the national anthem played shortly before the start of NFL games to protest police brutality against minorities in the United States, igniting a controversy that has ebbed and flowed across one and a half seasons of arguably the most popular sport in America, two presidents of very different politics, and a presidential campaign among one of the most bitter in modern memory. Hundreds, if not thousands, of articles have been penned on the subject of kneeling during the anthem, Kapernick himself, the effectiveness of the protest he has sparked, and the effect such an action has had on the sport and, indeed, the nation. Though many media outlets have covered the situation from perspectives from Colin Kapernick himself to his fellow teammates who have taken his cause up as their own to disenfranchised and embittered fans from around the United States, the perspective of the National Football League’s owners, managers, and leadership has largely been derided as indecisive and adding fuel to the fire, especially considering that both sides of the debate have railed against the NFL itself for either not giving protesting players the boot or for not standing by their players’ statements.

Of course, it’s not fair to ladle out scorn on the NFL without recognizing the simple fact that the management and ownership never asked for this. You’d be hard pressed to find a multimillion-dollar enterprise with a massive audience throughout the United States that would have willingly accepted such a divisive issue of its own accord. It would be closer to the truth to say that the NFL was force-fed the issue when the players themselves, of their own accord, took a knee during the national anthem, sparking both support and outrage and effectively leaving the NFL without a way out. Choosing a side either way would bring a storm of fury down on the heads of the hapless NFL. Side with the players and risk losing the support of most of your base, or side with your base and risk losing most of your players? You lose either way. You can’t expect the majority of the NFL’s base to willingly accept what they consider an affront to the nation’s honor, but you can’t expect the League to infringe on what is technically protected under free speech. So how do you address the issue?

Understandably, the League has tried to find a way to placate both its players and its fans. Trying to take a middle ground is about the only option the NFL has left, but how they have gone about trying to achieve this has been as muddled as could possibly be. Again, the fact that the NFL wasn’t prepared for this should be taken into consideration, but still. The NFL’s management has gone from kneeling alongside its players in some cases to bowing to pressure and issuing a half-hearted decree to ‘end’ the protests that solved absolutely nothing and stirred up more controversy. Though the NFL has arranged a series of meetings between protesting players and the owners themselves, so far nothing truly game-changing has come from it. If the NFL wants to get back to football, it has to move quickly and effectively to find a middle ground and a viable solution for both sides, which have to be willing to sit down and talk. The NFL cannot go back, and it cannot dodge this issue. The only way out is to go forward.