This week marks the two-year anniversary of the first time that quarterback Colin Kaepernick staged a protest during the national anthem before an NFL game, kicking off a controversy that seems like it's dominated American sports and domestic life for much longer. For all the time that we spend bemoaning the churn and burn of the 24-hour news cycle, the anthem uproar has proved remarkably resilient on both traditional and social media (and yes, I’ve contributed to this glut). Of course, much of the credit for the brouhaha goes to U.S. President Donald Trump, who has found in the topic a reliable way to fire up his base, invoking it regularly in speeches and tweets since the buildup to the 2016 election. On the eve of another NFL season and with U.S. midterm elections a matter of weeks away, we should only expect to hear more of this seemingly endless debate.
For readers unfamiliar with the backstory, here’s a brief rundown. It took three preseason games of Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem for the media to notice, at which point the quarterback explained his decision as an act of solidarity with victims of systematic oppression and police brutality in the United States, especially people of color. On the advice of Nate Boyer, a decorated U.S. Army veteran who enjoyed a brief stint in the NFL, Kaepernick began to kneel (instead of sitting), and in time, teammates and other athletes, both in the NFL and in other leagues, joined in. Unsurprisingly, critics were quick to malign Kaepernick and others, accusing them of disrespecting a range of institutions and ideas, including the armed forces, the flag and even the sport of football itself. The athletes have not been without their supporters; the ensuing controversy has touched off a range of related debates, linking topics such as race, celebrity activism and acceptable forms of protest.
In many ways, the anthem controversy has come to encapsulate the perpetual shouting match that is contemporary American civic discourse, where no one on either side of an issue seems particularly interested in listening to the other. But I believe that this ongoing narrative is more than just a symptom of our current moment or is at least a symptom worth a closer look. In particular, there are two questions I find myself coming back to:
- Has there been a negative effect on the NFL of this highly visible, political fracas?
- Has the controversy resulted in any meaningful political effects?
The first question is relatively easy to deal with: the answer — at this point — is no, there has not been a negative effect on the NFL. The league remains obscenely successful and has yet to suffer any apparent financial blowback due to the protests. We know this because the Green Bay Packers (the league's only publicly held team) recently released their annual financial report, indicating a record high league revenue distribution of $8.1 billion, up about 5 percent from the previous season (the first "protest season, which had set the previous record). In addition, Bloomberg estimates the league's teams raked in about another $6 billion in non-shared revenue (the NFL stopped issuing disclosures after giving up tax-exempt status in 2015, so these proxy measures and estimates are as close as we can get). Furthermore, the sense that football remains a good business to be in was confirmed in May, when hedge fund billionaire David Tepper bought the Carolina Panthers for a league record $2.275 billion. These numbers seem to contradict Trump's claims that the league is "hemorrhaging" money as a result of the players' unpatriotic displays.
If we've learned anything about football in this past decade, it is that the sport remains seemingly impervious to negative public relations.
Trump has also beaten the drum of declining league viewership, regularly suggesting that ratings are down by over 20 percent. There are two things at issue with this claim. First, even the most damning data show a decline of around 9 percent, which still means that NFL games outperform almost everything else on television. Second, as numerous media analysts have been quick to point out, as millions of people shift their media consumption patterns to digital formats (whether legal or illegal), these traditional measures are increasingly unreliable as a gauge of actual viewership. For example, Deadspin.com's Timothy Burke offered a more nuanced view last month: "The NFL's ratings have fallen substantially less than TV as a whole. Indeed, Sunday Night Football remained the highest-rated show for the seventh straight season. Ten years ago, it didn't even crack the top 10 … The NFL's share of a rapidly-shrinking TV audience grew in 2016, and it grew by an even larger amount in 2017. As a percentage of people who are watching television, the NFL is commanding its biggest audience in the history of the league." From this perspective, a case might even be made that the controversy has actually benefited ratings.
These strong numbers aren't particularly surprising. If we've learned anything about football in this past decade, it is that the sport remains seemingly impervious to negative public relations. Fans have kept tuning in and showing up, despite increasing public awareness about traumatic brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, domestic abuse and other unsavory behavior by athletes, and an unfocused, disorganized leadership from the office led by Commissioner Roger Goodell. Yet, as good as these numbers are for the league, I can only assume there is plenty of handwringing behind the scenes. The financials are driven by media contracts, which are negotiated years in advance, so the current robust figures may not accurately reflect contemporary sentiment. Goodell and team owners would certainly prefer to negotiate the next set of media-rights deals without extra baggage, political or otherwise. An attempt to craft a new, leaguewide anthem behavior policy stalled during the offseason but confirmed that league's leadership is anxious to get past the issue.
The Political Score
Assessing the political impact of the controversy is decidedly trickier. It's tempting to call the whole thing a stalemate or a non-issue: like any ideological shouting match, most involved are content to point fingers and claim moral victories from the comfort of their echo chambers. That said, I believe there are two noteworthy themes emerging, both of which favor Trump and his supporters on the American right. First, note that I have made a clear effort to refer to the issue as the "anthem controversy." Most coverage has settled into the shorthand "anthem protest," which clearly sounds like a protest of the national anthem, rather than one that takes place during it. No amount of pushback from the left about the "real meaning" of the protests can overcome this rhetorical coup.
This is just the most recent example of the right's superior ability to craft (or manipulate) political language: "Obamacare," "death tax," and so on. In the words of noted political language guru Frank Luntz, "It's not what you say, it's what people hear." For the left, this linguistic defeat is compounded by the fact that football and the NFL represent a problematic commodity: How do you leverage the high visibility of athletes and their message in a sport that you have long characterized as a regressive, hyperpatriotic bastion of toxic masculinity? While the messaging of the protests speaks to bigger picture, systemic outcomes, I'm wondering if and when we'll see an effort from the left to have these athletes turn their attention (and sizeable followings) to voter turnout for November, especially since midterm elections tend to have woefully low participation. That protest critiques by Trump and others have been racially tinged has angered many on the left and could hypothetically drive minority voter registration and participation, but this sentiment needs to be harnessed to be meaningful. Righteous indignation alone would do little.
The second and more novel political theme to emerge is a decidedly new wrinkle, at least in the American intersection of sports and politics. Trump has broken with the orthodoxy that sports are apolitical and the underlying gentlemen's agreement that presidents from either party should get to bask in the reflected glory of our champions. The NFL controversy is the most consistent example of a tenure marked by revoked White House invitations to championship teams and Twitter spats with big-time athletes, most recently Lebron James.
Trump has bucked the conventional wisdom surrounding presidential engagement with sports and doesn't seem to be suffering for it, especially among his base.
Like his war on the "fake news media," Trump has bucked the conventional wisdom surrounding presidential engagement with sports and doesn't seem to be suffering for it, especially among his base. If you'll pardon the pun, he has thrown out the playbook: We have a Republican president, taking football to task, for not being "American" enough. As his recent wave of vocal endorsements in primary and special elections has shown, Trump is rightfully concerned with November's electoral outcome. His on-again-off-again obsession with the NFL fits right in with his "perpetual campaign" approach to the presidency and the buildup to November. His stance on this issue alone won't get people to the polls, but it does further embolden large swaths of the Republican base, without alienating anyone who hadn't already been alienated.
A lot has changed since Kaepernick first took a seat during "The Star-Spangled Banner." The White House has a new occupant, and Kaepernick, having opted out of his deal with the 49ers in 2017, is no longer playing for an NFL team (and has filed a union grievance accusing owners of colluding to keep him jobless). But a lot surrounding this controversy has remained the same. Heated rhetoric on both sides of the issue has not seemed to change anyone's mind. So despite Trump's withering criticism (and, perhaps in part because of it), the anthem controversy looks likely to hang around for another season, overshadowing for many the action on the field — and the issues that inspired it in the first place.