In Thursday’s New York Times, sports columnist Juliet Macur followed in the dubious cleats of ESPN’s Howard Bryant in being highly disturbed by displays of patriotism in professional sports -- a subject that’s gotten new life in the wake of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s petulant flag protest: “Protest Leaves N.F.L. Necessarily Uneasy.” The text box portrayed patriotism as negative: “A league imbued with patriotism must confront some issues.”
After nearly two weeks of conspicuous silence, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday finally weighed in on Colin Kaepernick’s continuing refusal to stand for the national anthem.
No surprise: Goodell, the son of a United States senator and the point man for a group of teams owned mostly by white billionaires, doesn’t agree with Kaepernick.
On the eve of the N.F.L.’s season opener, it’s a solid assumption that Goodell didn’t necessarily want to speak publicly about Kaepernick at all, which he finally did in an interview with The Associated Press. And it’s a good bet that he didn’t necessarily find it comfortable taking a position on either side of the issue, considering his less-than-stellar relationship with players and a need to appease conservative fans.
Ever since Kaepernick’s peaceful protest against racial inequality and police brutality spurred a national conversation in late August, the definition of patriotism -- and compulsory patriotism, in the view of those who find it awkward -- has stirred debate. That debate is likely to grow even more heated when the first weekend N.F.L. games are played Sunday, on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
While athletes inside football and out have signaled their willingness to stand in solidarity with Kaepernick, his actions do not have universal support, even in his own league. But more and more players are talking about it. Ben Watson, a tight end with the Baltimore Ravens, said Monday on his Facebook page that he would stand for the anthem but that he respects Kaepernick’s decision not to do so.
Macur outlined the parade of horrors that accompany professional football while welcoming a “discussion” on liberal terms.
Despite the N.F.L.’s insistence that football is growing into an international game, it’s still an American idea willfully cloaked in Americana. Fighter jets routinely fly over stadiums before games. Flags, some fantastically oversize, are unfurled before every kickoff. Color guards march in. The national anthem is sung.
But it’s that national anthem that has been problematic lately for Goodell and a league that loves to wrap itself in the flag. Over the past two weeks, Kaepernick’s protest has started a discussion that the commissioner and his league probably didn’t want to have.
In raising the issue of patriotism, Kaepernick -- perhaps unwittingly -- shined a spotlight on the days when N.F.L. teams quietly became business partners with the United States military. For years, the Defense Department paid N.F.L. teams millions of dollars in exchange for the right to have military members stage homecoming events for troops, or unfurl the flag during pregame festivities.
To the N.F.L.’s credit, it quickly conducted an audit. On Wednesday, the league said it had repaid taxpayers $723,734 last spring, doling out the amount auditors deemed to be inappropriate payments. But as the season opens on Thursday, the N.F.L.’s idea of patriotism -- fake or real, paid or free -- and Kaepernick’s idea of it remain at opposite ends of the field.
While painting the NFL as a conservative, jingoistic bastion, there was not a word from Macur about the league refusing to allow Dallas Cowboy players to place an “Arm in Arm” sticker on their helmet expressing support for the local police, after five cops were shot dead in Dallas, as the Media Research Center has documented. Or that commissioner Goodell opposed North Carolina’s House Bill, which stated people should use the bathroom that matched their biological gender.