We learned a great deal about the NFL on Sunday. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin should spend more time preparing his team to play than cooking up plans to participate in anthem protests. Army Ranger and Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva came out and saluted the flag while his team hid in the locker room before another embarrassing loss to a woeful underdog on the road in Chicago.
We learned that the NFL is doubling and tripling down on the anthem protests started by the still-unemployed Colin Kaepernick. That’s bad business for the NFL and a mess that could have been avoided.
Images of NFL players protesting something as unifying and treasured as the flag and national anthem reminds me of something that happened in England that caught the attention of Winston Churchill, and others. I’ll get to that in a moment.
The inescapable gravitational force of the anthem dispute is that mainstream Americans find it reprehensible to protest our nation’s flag and anthem. They respect the right to protest, but don’t care to spend their money or time with the people who do. They stand for the anthem at swim meets, baseball games and Independence Day picnics. That’s bad news for the NFL.
Every year I host a Super Bowl party and invite some very casual football fans. One of them emailed me last night:
On the chance that you kindly invite us over to watch the Super Bowl, I don’t think we are going to watch these idiots this time around. I don’t care who is playing. Whole teams sitting out the anthem?
Self selected audience of mine? Sure. But two fewer sets of eyeballs regardless for the NFL. Don’t think that isn’t happening around the nation. Eyeballs are turning away from the NFL.
The Washington Post also continues to stick to it’s core business model of politicizing everything. For the last few years, the Washington Post Sports page has become the Sports/Politics page. Instead of scores and team news, the Post Sports/Politics page has served up headlines about race, Trump, Curt Schilling, race and more on Trump.
Yet on Saturday, Adam Kilgore and Abby Phillip wrote a story with the comically ironic headline “Trump turns sports into a political battleground with comments on NFL.”
“Hey that’s our job!,” the Post virtually shouted. “You aren’t allowed to turn sports into politics. We don’t want the competition!” The Post has become the Daily Missal for those for whom politics is their religion. No field of human experience is free from politicization.
But does any of this really matter?
This whole avoidable mess reminds me of an event Winston Churchill wrote about in The Gathering Storm, the first part of his masterpiece history of the Second World War.
Through the mid-1930’s world powers were engaged in a test of wills, a chess match on the world stage. The problem was that the French and His Majesty’s Government didn’t have enough will, and the Germans and Italy had far too much. Churchill recounts an event:
In this dark time the basest sentiments received acceptance or passed unchallenged by the responsible leaders of the political parties. In 1933, the students of the Oxford Union, under the inspiration of a Mr. Joad, passed their shameful resolution. ‘That this house refuses to fight for King and Country.’ It was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations.
Could harmless protests against a nation or national symbols really merit such attention? Who cares about what a pampered well-off elite at Oxford thinks about their nation? Again, Churchill:
Mussolini… regarded Britannia as a frightened, flabby old woman, who at the worst would only bluster and was, anyhow incapable of making war. Lord Lloyd, who was on friendly terms with [Mussolini], noted how [Mussolini] had been struck by the Joad Resolution of the Oxford undergraduates in 1933 refusing to fight for King and County.
This isn’t to say that the NFL anthem protests will lead to world calamity. That’s not the point. But they do say something about America to people watching from afar. And they are watching from afar, be very sure of that.
You might think the NFL anthem protests will demonstrate our Constitutional respect for outlier ideas. They surely do.
But not everyone is bound to interpret a wholesale hostility by a pampered elite toward our national symbols and national anthem so philosophically or rationally. There are still world leaders who view affairs as an ongoing test of wills, no different than they were in the 1930’s or two centuries ago. There are also the irrational madmen, including one who has new atomic toys.
So now that we’ve reached a climax on the anthem protests, perhaps it’s best for the NFL to get back to football.