The NFL buzzword last weekend, in the wake of President Trump’s comments regarding national anthem protests, was “unity.”
We heard that word time after time Sunday from teams and individuals associated with the league. The words were generally vague and hollow, if at least well-intentioned. I couldn’t get a handle on what exactly everyone was unified for (or against), but my best guess was that the unity was generally against Trump’s attacks on the NFL more than anything much deeper about racial injustice.
The discussion continues Thursday when the Packers host the Bears in a game during which fans are being asked to lock arms during the anthem at Lambeau Field in a display of — you guessed it — unity. Packers players locked arms last weekend before their game, and it received mixed reactions (as everything does these days).
At least quarterback Aaron Rodgers was able to get a little more descriptive with what the gesture means to him and to what end he hopes it will lead.
“This is about equality,” Rodgers said. “This is about unity and love and growing together as a society, and starting a conversation around something that may be a little bit uncomfortable for people. But we’ve got to come together and talk about these things and grow as a community, as a connected group of individuals in our society, and we’re going to continue to show love and unity. And this week we’re going to ask the fans to join in as well and come together and show people that we can be connected and we can grow together.”
That’s good. Meaningful dialogue — a fear of which seems to be at the heart of much of this polarizing anthem business — is good. We had some of it on this week’s Access Vikings podcast, and it felt good.
What’s not so good are subjects that distract from that discussion. One such distraction that has cropped up in the last few days is a debate over whether NFL rules say players have to stand for the anthem. News outlets have attempted to debunk, clarify or explain what the league says about it.
To zero in on this issue, though, feels akin to going down a rabbit hole in search of a squirrel. You’ll get lost pretty quickly, and whatever you find isn’t the thing you should have been looking for in the first place.
Time Magazine was at least helpful in getting an NFL spokesman to provide a copy clarifying what the NFL’s gameday operations manual — not the rulebook, but a document covering logistics — says on the issue:
The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem. During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. … Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.
Some have taken this as evidence that the NFL prohibits players from kneeling. Others would point out that the couched language of “should” and “may” leaves plenty to interpretation. The NFL, by the way, is not considering any sort of punishment for players or teams who didn’t adhere to the manual.
The reality is this, though: this discussion is a distraction that does not matter.
Yes, of course there is a recommendation. That sort of behavior when the national anthem is played is the one that is generally expected. Colin Kaepernick and anyone else who has kneeled or gone against the grain in a different way at the start of an NFL game to protest racial injustice knows what the expected behavior is. If the Star Tribune played the national anthem every time I tried to go to work — which they don’t, as is the case with most jobs — that is how I would be expected to behave.
But this is how a protest works. You do the thing that is not expected of you to raise awareness and in the process you exercise your right to free speech.
A gameday manual can say what it wants. So can a president, for that matter. At the end of the day, we’re still back to the First Amendment — the trump card, so to speak — which carries just a little more sway than a logistical document or a tweet.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Free speech leads to uncomfortable conversations — ones that Rodgers, correctly, says we need to be having. Debating whether a league rule means players shouldn’t be able to start that conversation probably means you don’t want to have that conversation.
Enough false flags. The real one is too important.