Football was under siege when the president of the United States jumped into the fray.
The year was 1905. The president: Theodore Roosevelt.
The NFL wouldn’t be born for another 15 years, but already there were concerns about player safety at the college level. That year, 18 players were killed on football fields, according to the Chicago Tribune.
When an outcry to outlaw the game arose, it was Roosevelt who brought dozens of universities together and demanded new rules be implemented to promote player safety. One of those rules was legalizing the forward pass to open up the game starting in 1906.
In short, football survived.
“Roosevelt was a football fan who also had a direct line to the presidents of universities,” said Joe Horrigan, executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “He literally called a summit and said: Let’s clean it up or I’m going to have to intervene. He was being helpful.”
Fast forward 112 years and football again is under siege. The dirty laundry list of topics encroaching on America’s favorite game includes concussions, quality of play, domestic violence, declining TV ratings, an unreceptive Los Angeles market, fewer kids playing tackle football in youth leagues, Colin Kaepernick’s continued unemployment and, of course, player protests during the national anthem.
As for the president, Donald Trump, he spent the past week repeatedly inserting himself into the middle of it all via Twitter after his Sept. 22 speech to supporters in Alabama. In that speech, Trump called players who sit or kneel during the “Star-Spangled Banner” “sons of bitches” who should be fired for disrespecting the flag. He also criticized the NFL’s attempts to reduce concussions with rules against helmet-to-helmet hits.
Until then, only a few players had continued what Kaepernick started last year when he began protesting the treatment of black men by law enforcement. But last Sunday, two days after Trump’s speech, the league experienced a game day unlike any other when more than 200 players sat or knelt during the national anthem. Three teams stayed in the locker room while many more, including the Vikings, who play on Sunday against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium, stood and joined arms along with owners, coaches and general managers.
The movement continued into Week 4 Thursday night when the Packers and some fans joined arms. Afterward, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said it’s a show of unity against Trump’s divisiveness.
Still, teams are grappling with ways to both display unity and patriotism, and diffuse controversy in the face of the president encouraging fans to boycott the league while adding that the NFL’s business will “go to hell” if it doesn’t mandate that players stand.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his team knelt before their game, then stood for the national anthem. The Saints plan to take the same approach, said quarterback Drew Brees.
Vikings cornerback Terence Newman, 39, has played this game at its highest level for 15 seasons and has no doubt the NFL and its players will withstand these latest winds of controversy.
“I think we’ll be all right,” Newman said. “He has a right to his opinion, but I think the history of the league speaks for itself.”
Newman’s other message: “We just had two of the worst storms in history and [Trump’s] focus is talking about football,” Newman said of the recent hurricanes. “Not Puerto Rico or people who lost their lives and lost their homes and lost everything they have. How do you speak about football when you’re the president and there are so many people in this world who need help?
“You criticize football players and yet you go to Detroit or you go to Chicago and you see how bad it is in areas there, and you don’t hear any of that from the president. Tell me how backwards that is. And yet you can tweet about football players kneeling. But you won’t speak about these people who are getting killed every day.”
Newman said what Kaepernick started took a “great amount of courage and had nothing to do with the military or disrespecting the flag.”
“I know plenty of people who served in the military who said that they side with Kaepernick,” Newman continued. “What Colin Kaepernick did was about making an awareness to a social injustice issue.”
No one can pinpoint why the NFL’s television ratings dipped last season and again through three weeks this season.
First of all, fewer Americans are watching television. According to USA Today, 79 percent of U.S. homes are paying for TV service, which is a 5 percent decline since 2014.
Secondly, other sports, including the NBA and NASCAR, have experienced declines in ratings. College football’s ratings are on the rise, but a typical big game in college football still doesn’t come close to measuring up to a typical NFL game.
For example, the NFL’s first “Sunday Night Football” game between the Cowboys and Giants drew more than 24 million viewers. A week earlier, college football’s marquee Saturday night game, Oklahoma at Ohio State, drew just over 8 million viewers.
The NFL has pointed to last year’s presidential election and this year’s hurricanes as reasons for the ratings decline.
No one, however, is disputing that there has been a decline the past two years. Ratings were down 8 percent overall last year and are down 10 percent through three weeks this year.
Meanwhile, the NFL seems to always find itself in a no-win situation.
Fans who think Kaepernick is being blackballed believe their boycott is making an impact. But so do the people who are boycotting the league because of the protests Kaepernick started.
The NFL has tried to take harsher stances against players who besmirch its shield. But what has happened recently is more of a prolonged PR nightmare with court battles against Adrian Peterson over child abuse charges, Tom Brady for “Deflategate” and now Ezekiel Elliott for domestic violence.
And once the league finally admitted that concussions can have lasting effects on the brain, there has been a steady feed of evidence that many former players have suffered brain disease linked to playing football.
To play or not to play
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t think the increasing number of parents shielding their sons from youth football will end up harming the league in the long run.
In fact, Zimmer said he thinks kids shouldn’t play tackle football until “high school, or maybe eighth grade.”
“If it was me and my son or whatever, I would say play flag football, play touch football, and then when you get to high school, play tackle football,” Zimmer said. “I don’t think they should play tackle football when they’re so underdeveloped, when they’re 10 years old. Just my personal opinion.”
History of social issues
The NFL having its patriotism questioned by the president sounds strange to those who credit the league for helping the country heal after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
“Think of 9/11 and the level of patriotism that was raised by the National Football League,” Horrigan said. “No private sector industry was more important to the revitalization and sense of normalcy and patriotism after 9/11 than the NFL.
“The huge flag ceremonies. Players running out onto the field with the flag. Those sorts of things were recovery for our hearts and minds and spirits.”
As for merging football with social issues and politics, Kaepernick isn’t a pioneer. Horrigan gave one example from over half a century ago.
“The 1965 AFL all-star game was to be played in New Orleans,” Horrigan said, “but because of the segregated seating and the treatment of the black players when they got there, the black players said they weren’t going to play in the game.
“Rather than pull up their contract and tell them they must play, the league said, ‘You’re right.’ So they packed up the game and moved it to Houston.”
There was an uproar in New Orleans. Three days later, the game was played in Houston. Football survived.