By Ben Fischer, Sports Business Journal
Jun 22, 2020
The nationwide protests against police brutality have reignited the political feud that threatened to consume the NFL three years ago — players kneeling during the national anthem. But with rapidly changing political tides and more confidence in its own position, the NFL no longer fears President Donald Trump’s bully pulpit. In fact, the league’s owners, players and Commissioner Roger Goodell are better positioned to weather a fight, insiders familiar with high-level dynamics in the league say.
One factor is Goodell’s independence. On June 5, he created the video in which he apologized for not listening to players’ concerns with little input from owners. In 2017, Goodell was still awaiting a contract extension and was facing new union negotiations. Today, he has four years left on his deal, has sewn up a long-term labor contract and has turned to thoughts of his legacy.
“I think he’s probably into the second-term president kind of stuff,” one insider said. “He’s taken a lot of shit over the last 10 years and he knows his role, but he’s going to have a voice. He probably sees that a lot of other corporate CEOs have a point of view about this.”
The political shift is less about a decline in Trump’s popularity — his average approval rating is one percentage point higher than it was when the controversy peaked early in the 2017 season, according to the politics data tracker FiveThirtyEight — and more so a reflection that a majority of Americans have come around on the issue of police brutality.
“More important than the political context, what has changed is the nation witnessing the horrifying reality of the video of George Floyd’s killing,” said Kevin Sullivan, a former excutive for NBCUniversal and the Dallas Mavericks who served as White House communications director under President George W. Bush. “With the painful national conversation we’re now having as a result of the death of Mr. Floyd and others, people better understand why an athlete would want to exercise his or her right to protest.”
Indeed, the general public has accepted that players were protesting police brutality, not the military or the American flag. That makes it difficult for Trump to dictate terms, said Ashley Blackwood, a strategic communications consultant to numerous athletes, sports properties and brands.
“Truly, it’s not about him anymore,” Blackwood said. “It’s about right and wrong.”
Vada Manager, a former Nike executive and founder of the Manager Global Consulting Group, which helped Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross create the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality in 2015, said Trump’s word just doesn’t carry the weight it used to.
“[Trump] will continue to use this issue to rile up his base, but the impact it will have on the NFL will be greatly mitigated because of the changes in public sentiment,” Manager said. “Even NASCAR has changed. The president will become more isolated, if you will, and almost to some degree compartmentalized by the NFL and others, because it’s just a different world.”
A recent poll from Yahoo News/YouGov found that 52% of Americans support NFL players’ right to kneel; it was 28% when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016.
There are other changes around the league that make this moment different than those hotly debated weeks a few years ago. One is the absence of Joe Lockhart, the former top PR man who some owners believed made matters worse by picking fights with Trump. Goodell and the league are now better equipped to have a thoughtful role in criminal justice reform and social issues, some said, rather than its reactive approach to Trump earlier in his term.
In 2018, the league launched its “Inspire Change” grants program to fund criminal justice reform efforts and other causes, and the Players Coalition, founded in 2017 by Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin, provides a platform for independent organizing. Those programs, as well as Goodell’s apology to players and the league’s June 12 pledge of $250 million to fight systemic racism, have steered attention toward the underlying issue rather than the details of how players protest.
Ownership has evolved, too. Since the anthem controversy, leadership of the Carolina Panthers transferred from the quiet, conservative Jerry Richardson to David Tepper, a Trump critic who has shown liberal tendencies on criminal justice issues. Houston Texans founder Bob McNair, a Trump donor from 2016, passed away in 2018. Ross endured pressure from players and was forced off the league’s social justice committee after it was revealed he hosted a fundraiser for Trump.
The few owners who have addressed the recent unrest have forcefully defended their players’ right to protest, including Tennessee Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk and Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. “If I was them, I wouldn’t want to work for me if I’m scared to speak out, if I consider economic hurt because I don’t want to offend,” Bisciotti said.
A backlash remains possible. It wouldn’t take many suite holders or local sponsors objecting to widespread anthem protests to cause new problems for teams already facing pandemic-related revenue shortfalls. On the other hand, the league could face a bigger problem among its own players if it moves to restrict protests.
Sports communications consultant Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary for George W. Bush, said the league is still in a tough position.
“The mood of the country has changed, but not for everybody, and that’s the NFL’s problem,” Fleischer said. “The NFL still is in a terribly delicate spot. If there’s widespread kneeling during the national anthem, it’s just going to rip their fan base in half.”
Fleischer suggested the NFL invite all players and fans to kneel in memory of George Floyd and others prior to the national anthem, then insist that everyone rise together for the song.
“If the NFL’s going to get actively involved in social justice issues, they should figure out a way to honor those who want to take a knee while protecting the national anthem. They could do both, and should do both.”