High-Stakes NFL and the Flag-Sitting Controversy

The NFL is a high-stakes organization to say the least.  Nearly 112 million people tuned in to view the last Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons.  Total advertising revenue for the game eclipsed a half a billion dollars for the first time in the history of the event.  It is understandable that team owners, in cooperation with the league’s commissioner, walk a fine line to balance operational and competitive integrity with financial stability.  Professional football is a moneymaking, society-revving, fan-inspiring machine with no signs of slowing down any time soon.

The recent flag-sitting controversy, ignited by a few NFL players who refuse to stand during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, is not good for the NFL.  The image of highly-paid, highly-trained athletes excusing themselves from the honoring of the American flag is wholly inconsistent with the brand it tries so hard to promote.  The most recent installment of this rather simple act of social disobedience comes courtesy of running back Marshawn Lynch, who sat on a cooler behind his Raider teammates as the national anthem was being played to open Oakland’s preseason against the Arizona Cardinals.

Perhaps anticipating more protests of this sort as the 2017 season cranks up, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell encouraged fans to be understanding.  According to ESPN.com, here is what Goodell said:

“It’s one of those things where we have to understand that there are people who have different viewpoints. It’s something that I think everybody wants. The national anthem is a special moment for me. It’s a point of pride. That is a really important moment but we also have to understand the other side, that people do have rights and we want to respect those.”

In his comments, Goodell takes a high-stakes approach to a high-stakes problem.  He knows that it is political suicide to challenge the protesters, given that protesting is even more American than football.  But he also knows that the average NFL fan, many of whom can’t afford to take their families to even one game, don’t appreciate disrespect for the very same flag that represents the freedoms being exercised by the protesters.  

Thankfully, the entire controversy is an example of a problem that can be neutralized simply by changing how we look at it.  For every protester sitting or kneeling during the honoring of the American flag, there are scores of players and tens of thousands of fans on their feet, hats removed from their heads, standing respectfully beneath a waving flag that, for just a few moments, commands both our attention and imagination.

The protesters will do what they do.  They will sit and kneel.  The flag and its countless defenders will do what they do, stand tall and proud.  

All is well.