Setting aside everything else—the goals of the two-year-old protest across the NFL, the nationwide social and economic inequality the protesting players hoped to point to, the decorum the national anthem may or may not require, the increasingly blatant strategery by team owners that has kept protest originator Colin Kaepernick out of work—you might hope, at least, that the people running a $14 billion–a-year company would be competent. They would like for us to think so, offering on Wednesday what they certainly seemed to think was an ingenious and decisive cap on the whole protest conversation and the attendant financial uncertainty. The league announced a change in pregame policy. From now on, the protest would be out of sight and therefore, surely, out of mind: Players may opt to remain in the locker room for the duration of the national anthem, but if they kneel on the field, their team will be fined.
There are two explanations for this baffling decision. One: The NFL’s decision-makers truly are bothered by the protest. Or two: They are collectively some of the most profound morons we’ve ever had the misfortune of having our news cycles dictated by.
As far as efforts to stop something go, this is a failure that might, in another context, perhaps be comical. The protest had dwindled by the end of the 2017 season for a variety of reasons, including a sense that the statement the players were trying to make had, by dint of the firestorm of coverage, at last been heard, allowing them to move forward with other kinds of activism. Just seven players took a knee during the final week of the 2017 regular season.
The charitable read—which, in fact, is not really charitable at all—of Wednesday’s rule change is that owners hoped, if not to end the protest, at least to quiet down the last of it. In this attempted conclusion, we learned that President Donald Trump loomed large. The prospect of the president once again lashing out at the league as he did last fall—and mobilizing his base accordingly—prompted “fear,” the NFL’s Jim Trotter reported: The owners “did not want him using their brand as a ‘weapon’ during midterms.”
To be charitable once more: Surely team owners could not have been so naive as to think this move wouldn’t be weaponized politically. Scarcely an hour after commissioner Roger Goodell announced the new policy in a press conference, Vice President Mike Pence tweeted a screenshot of CNN’s story on the decision—which characterized the new rule, absurdly, as “a stunning victory for President Trump”—with the caption “#Winning.” By Thursday morning, Trump himself had responded, telling ProFootballTalk that he didn’t think players should be allowed even to remain in their locker rooms. “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there,” Trump said. “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem.”
After Trump called kneeling players “sons of bitches” in September, the protest surged. With the president once again challenging players’ right to protest—or, in a most Trumpian ante-upping, seemingly their right to be citizens—it seems quite likely that the protest will see a renewed intensity come fall: DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, characterized the new anthem policy as “a rule that people who hate autocracies should reject.” Players who had not kneeled in the past are reportedly now considering taking action.
Patriotism—and specifically a kind of patriotism that equates love of country and the military—is, for the NFL, strictly a matter of the bottom line. This union of money, military, and flag-honoring is often quite explicit: In 2015, senators John McCain and Jeff Flake released a report showing that the Department of Defense had foisted some $6.8 million of taxpayer money toward professional sports leagues for displays like the NFL’s “Salute to Service,” a pattern the senators condemned as “paid patriotism.” “Unsuspecting audience members became the subjects of paid-marketing campaigns,” the senators wrote, “rather than simply bearing witness to teams’ authentic, voluntary shows of support for the brave men and women who wear our nation’s uniform.” In response to the report, the DoD banned the practice of paying for tributes, but still could not give the Senate a full accounting of “the nature and extent of paid patriotism activities.” Salute to Service—and the flyovers and flag-drapings and, of course, anthem performances—lives on.
For the NFL, patriotism-as-branding was long as cynical as it was shrewd, a bit of weatherproofing that insisted that football was a vital part of the American experience. Last year Trump pinpointed the strategy’s weakness: If the NFL is synonymous with the flag, and the flag is synonymous with the military, what can you do when the commander-in-chief himself revolts?
The reasonable thing for the NFL would have been to use this as a moment to separate itself even slightly from the flag-troops nexus. Other sports leagues have done as much: The NBA, for one, has made clear that its players’ activism says nothing about basketball or, indeed, anyone’s affection for the United States (let alone its soldiers).
Instead, the NFL doubled down: All players would be seen honoring the flag, or they would not be seen at all. Not all owners joined in: Both the Raiders’ Mark Davis and the 49ers’ Jed York abstained from the decision, a move that newly minted Niners cornerback Richard Sherman said “carries a lot of weight and we respect the hell out of him for it.” Jets chairman Christopher Johnson pledged to pay any fines his players might incur under the new rule. “Do I prefer that they stand? Of course,” he told Newsday. “But I understand if they felt the need to protest.”
The NFL has now backed itself into a corner: Trump will continue to fan the flames, players are rightfully infuriated, and the need for the protest itself feels more acute than ever. It’s hard to imagine that the league failed to foresee any of this, so we’re left with just one explanation: The league chose branded patriotism above its players and above its communities—and maybe now even above itself.