Rep. Keith Ellison, the Democratic congressman from Minnesota’s Fifth District, had started looking ahead to the next NFL season with great anticipation. He believes Kirk Cousins is a better downfield passer than Case Keenum, expects running back Dalvin Cook will be “awesome” returning from a major knee injury and thinks the Minnesota Vikings have the makings of a Super Bowl contender.
But after the league announced its new policy regarding player protests during the national anthem last week, Ellison decided on a protest of his own. Ellison said he will not watch the NFL next fall, a decision he announced over the weekend on Twitter while wielding the prevalent hashtag #BoycottNFL.
“I hope they change their mind,” Ellison said. “I’m a massive football fan.”
Ellison’s stance exposes a new facet of the NFL’s ongoing quandary regarding players, mostly African-American, kneeling or otherwise demonstrating during the pregame playing of the national anthem. The league announced a new policy last week, requiring players to stand if they are on the field for the anthem, but permitting them to remain in the locker room, with teams enabled to make their own punishments and policies and held responsible by the league.
The NFL announced the policy as an attempt to placate fans — many of them influenced by the comments of President Donald Trump, who immediately declared the new NFL policy a personal victory — who turned away from the league because of player demonstrations during the anthem. But in trying to appease Trump and fans angry at protesting players, the league generated some NFL may have shifted unrest, more than eliminated it.
On Twitter over the past week, the phrase #NFLBoycott has seen steady use. How much those tweeters will stay away, or how much NFL they watched in the first place, is unknowable. But as Ellison shows, some will stay away.
“I think that’s ironic,” Ellison said. “They’re not looking at their values, or American values. They’re just looking at, which group would they rather suck up to? And they clearly have made their choice. And that’s really unfortunate. I wish they would just ask themselves, do we believe in the basic idea that freedom of expression is as American as you can get?”
When Trump inserted himself into the debate last fall, it placed the NFL in a thorny position, wanting to avoid the ire of a president who can rile up his core base like few politicians in recent history but also aligning itself with a polarizing figure who 55 percent of Americans disapprove of, according to last week’s Gallup poll. Many fans will draw direct connections between the policy and Trump, which inherently means alienating a portion of its fan base.
“The president of the United States used the power of his office to pressure a group of business people to restrict the rights and the expression of their employees,” Ellison said. “This decision by NFL owners was heavily influenced, if not directed, by the president.
“It’s not like Colin Kaepernick took a knee, and immediately the NFL started saying this is not our policy, you can’t do it. It was the president who started this. It’s absolutely undeniable. If a police officer directs a private citizens to punch another private citizen, can the government say, ‘Oh, there was no state action.’? Of course they cannot. The state’s deeply implicated in that. The president saying they ought to fire players is a clear sign that the government is trying to direct private business owners to restrict and punish employees for what is essentially protected expression.”
Because he believes the government effectively bullied a business into forced patriotism, Ellison does not want to partake in the NFL. But he still loves football, and while the Vikings try for a Super Bowl outside of his vision, he’ll still partake in the sport.
“I am going to put a whole lot more time and energy into high school and college football this time around,” Ellison said. “And I’ll be watching that.”