While protests across the NFL continue, no players knelt during the national anthem in Sunday’s early games, according to an ESPN roundup. Although several San Francisco 49ers knelt during the afternoon game against the Dallas Cowboys, the vast reduction in anthem kneeling across the league could be the start of a new trend.
During the early games, several players sat during the anthem, raised fists, or remained in the locker room. Others locked arms with teammates. But according to the roundup, no players in early games knelt during the anthem, the most divisive of all the forms that protests during the anthem have taken.
(The Jacksonville Jaguars apologized earlier this week for kneeling during the anthem while on foreign soil in September.)
The protests began last year as a stand against racial inequality, with only a handful of players —starting with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — kneeling or remaining seated during the anthem. But when President Donald Trump blasted both the NFL and protesting players in a September stump speech, the protests mutated and took on a new quality: standing up against criticism from the White House.
As so often happens when Trump gets involved, the protest issue lost all nuance and became an us-versus-them free-for-all, original intentions stomped into the dust amid all the posturing. The NFL and players have begun discussing new methods of protest, and the NFL will not punish players who do use the anthem as a forum to speak out.
Players’ decision not to kneel for the national anthem this week, whether coordinated or not, puts the red-white-and-blue ball back in protest opponents’ court, to mix sports metaphors. Critics have complained that the players were disrespectful to the sacrifices of military veterans by kneeling during the anthem. But does locking arms constitute disrespect, given the way many fans behave during the anthem? Is staying in the locker room disrespectful, given that players weren’t even on the field for the anthem before 2009?
— Jason Wolf (@JasonWolf) October 22, 2017
President Trump will almost surely claim victory over the NFL and its protesters, and in a way, he did “win,” given that he grabbed for the low-hanging fruit of nationalistic fervor and his base followed with broad, loud denouncements of the NFL on social media. The question now, of course, is how long the rage at the NFL might last without the president stoking the flames on Twitter every week.
The protests, and the president’s criticism, certainly put a short-term dent in the NFL’s popularity. But the matter of long-term damage remains up for debate. Ratings are ticking up slightly week over week for some games, such as the Thursday night ones. And ratings are also down across the board for all television shows, regardless of protests. (Ratings are way, WAY down in heavily patriotic, protest-free NASCAR.)
If the kneeling is, for the most part, complete, it’ll now be up to the players to continue charitable efforts and awareness that the protests kicked off. The medium and the message became intertwined, even inextricable, and removing the patriotic element from the protests could help clarify the message of racial equality to fans that are still listening.
Of course, all it will take is one more tweet from the president, or one more hardline statement from an owner, and this will all flare up again.