Take a Knee, NFL. We Have Your Playbook

September 25, 2017

For Donald Trump, the image of a kneeling pro football player is America-hating behavior. Disrespectful and a fireable offense, the president tells NFL owners. For black athletes — from the unemployed Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick to the well-employed NBA champion Stephen Curry — it’s their right to speak and assemble freely.FlagDrop

This Sunday, sports and politics collided as never before as morning show politicos and pregame analysts shared the same topic — the #takeaknee movement that has blackballed its instigator Kaepernick and the made-for-media fallout. Trump’s taunts (son-of-a-bitches, he called them) and countering players (U bum, LeBron James tweeted to 38 million) were perfect bookends.

Earlier, as tempers flared, NFL owners and league officials huddled. Some might have called it crisis planning. But to the NFL it was opportunity knocking. They pulled from their PR playbooks a project + decoy combination that would (1) keep attention on a white waring president and upset black players and (2) mask the league’s use, abuse and reuse of American symbols.

Cleveland StatementSure enough, by game time Sunday, owners and athletes were arm-in-arm as anthems soared. Many kneeled. Some were absent. But the message and the optics shouted solidarity. From the lowly Cleveland Browns to the kingly New England Patriots it was a talking points clinic of unity, community and more unity, a cathartic middle finger to a divisive president, a moment to ignore CTE and player safety and, for owners and the league, a brief chance to shine and be loved again. It was NFL marketing brilliance because the setting that redeemed the owners (and by degrees, the players) was garnished with the goodies that triggered the trouble.

When American flags engulf entire fields, when pop stars riff the national anthem, and when fighters strafe the stands, there’s no mistaking the message of supremacy. And if you look closely, there’s no mistaking the motive for profits. It’s a play (of the influence sort) to link football with a nation’s power and price. It’s a feeling and a force that claims greatness. And it’s a setting that expects every participant — from the Dr. Pepper guy to the backup punter — to respect the moment and, at the very least, to stand and face the flag.

Browns-Patriots StatmentsBut Colin Kaepernick and now hundreds of his fellow athletes inside and outside football know better. The singing of the anthem, the doffing of the cap, and the hand over the heart, are a reminder of institutional racism and the familiar echo that they come to heel.

So they kneel, as Martin Luther King might advise. They don’t brandish sidearms or swastikas as happened in Charlottesville or don black gloves as happened in Mexico City. They go down on one, quietly, as is their right, because their employer has invoked an authority that belongs not to football fans but American citizens.

Many have dismissed the dust-up. “Employees should do as employees are told,” we hear at local diners. Or to quote the Treasury Secretary and Trump proxy, Steven Mnuchin, “They can do free speech on their own time.”

Kaepernick is not the cause. Nor are Trump’s racist dogwhistles. Each is a reaction to the setting and sentiments that have been manicured by the NFL and its expert marketers. In its zeal to grow its football brand, the lavishly profitable league has reached outside its sport to expand the meaning and merit of the actual game — from a local contest to a national pastime, from simple rivalries to veritable religions. And among their various devices, they’ve used America to do it. Patriotism sells, after all. Just ask the mega church preacher what draws his flock. It’s not just God and scripture. It’s God and country. It’s a calculated pander that, so far, has paid.

But for how long will the ruse work?

Colin Kaepernick may never call another play (not of the football sort). But his civil act of disobedience is sure to make it to Canton and other halls of history. With time and reflection it should become clear that the flag and other American symbols are not for sale and that anyone who co-opts them — particularly those with marketing minds – will be studied and, hopefully, exposed.


Post by Alan Kelly

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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