Home Turf: The NFL's National Anthem Controversy

By Andre Mikhail

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Why do you watch football? Relax, it’s an honest question, not an accusation (my reasons are numerous, I can assure you).

I watch because it’s the athletic and strategic pinnacle of American sport — football is singularly gladiatorial. I watch because my best friend grew up playing quarterback and worshiping at the altar that is Ben Roethlisberger, so it’s all but impossible to have a conversation with him that doesn’t eventually lead to the Pittsburgh Steelers or football.

I love the tension of it, how every game matters all season, how any one play could change a franchise indelibly. I envy the courage and physicality it takes to play the game at any level, much less to do so on national television. I love how more or less anywhere in the country, if you’re sitting next to a stranger at a bar, there’s a fair to decent chance you’ll be able to talk football with him or her.

And so the list goes on. No matter your reason for watching, one fact remains undisputed, which is that football is — for good or ill — America’s favorite pastime (socially and statistically). No other sport comes close, and the data supporting that statement makes for pretty jaw-dropping reading.

For example, despite a 15% increase in ratings last season, the NBA’s viewership still makes up only one tenth of the NFL’s (which suffered a 10% decrease in ratings last year). Of the 20 most watched television broadcasts in U.S. history, nineteen have been Super Bowls, with SBLI boasting a viewership of 111.3 million Americans. For something that started as a game, football is certainly not a game, people.

The National Football League is a business, make no mistake, and that’s an important truth to keep in mind when considering its latest controversy, which concerns the near unanimous approval by league owners of a new policy dictating acceptable behavior for players during ceremonial recitation of the Star Spangled Banner before the start of every game.

In the event you’re not a football fan or privy to the surrounding circumstances, the controversy began at the third pre-season game on 26 August 2016 (which, you will note, occurred just months before the Presidential election), when former 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, chose to kneel during the national anthem in protest to incidents of police brutality and racial injustice making headlines nationwide.

Kaepernick’s acts were both divisive and unifying, provoking rage and disgust from the league’s conservative pundits, while garnering support and inspiration from many of its African-American players, along with the Black Lives Matter movement. Foremost among his critics was then Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who continues to denounce — publicly and profanely — all those who choose not to stand for the anthem.

When these acts of peaceful protest persisted, Trump went so far as to demand boycotting the sport, even saying that some players don’t belong in the country, referring to them as “sons of bitches” at one of his rallies in Alabama — which, needless to say, succeeded only in escalating the problem. In the event you’re not a politics fan or privy to the surrounding circumstances, this is very much par for the course in Donald’s short career.

The question of whether or not players should be able to protest is irrelevant, because that is a Constitutional right, and thus bears no further mentioning. What’s more, the NFL is already known for being one of the more unscrupulous sporting organizations in the country, with a well documented history of ethically questionable policies and legal decisions (e.g. cases of domestic violence), which overlook what is right in favor of what is profitable.

What matters is that those who kneel do so in aspiration of a better nation, and those who condemn it do so in affirmation of a worse one. Athletes are among the precious few citizens with the platform and resources to make an impact on our society, and to relegate them to silence or complacence for using those is no less than a despotic act on behalf of both the league and Donald.

Meanwhile, what people seem to be missing altogether is that the Star Spangled Banner was originally intended to signify the departure from an America held hostage by tyranny, and yet here we are, endorsing just the opposite. At this point I feel compelled to reiterate that players were kneeling in protest to the institution of racism, not the flag, national anthem, or indeed anything else.

It’s no secret that football has a largely conservative fan base and leadership (at least ten of the NFL’s 32 owners are known to have donated seven figure sums to the Trump campaign), thus it should be no surprise that so many would be outraged by players — especially black players — challenging the status quo on what is such a traditionally patriotic stage.

But real patriotism entails the defending of freedom, not oppressing of it, and that’s precisely what this new policy has accomplished. There’s nothing wrong with wanting respect to be shown for your country, but ask yourself what’s really important, respect for a ceremony or that for action? And while you’re at it, maybe ask yourself: why do you watch football?

Andre Mikhail is a creative writer and journalist from Texas with an international background. He started writing during his time in Cairo, which coincided with the Egyptian Revolution. Since then, Andre has ventured into fiction, photography, and music