The connection between the NFL and the U.S. Military is now a given for pretty much every football fan and most non-football fans as well. As well as the overt displays before games, the ceremonies for soldiers, the constant ads and whatever else, there’s the more subtle camouflage team gear, the war-terminology used by coaches and broadcasters, the exaggerated “American-ness” of it. And we know how America identifies itself through its military might. The league was basically “Yvan Eht Nioj-ing” before most games.
The league’s relationship with the military is one of the reasons it lashed out, both within the league and amongst its fans, at Colin Kaepernick and his anthem protests to decry police brutality. The NFL made the anthem about the troops and military it was so far in bed with. It felt like there was no other choice but to cast Kaepernick out as disrespecting something he wasn’t even talking about. It certainly wasn’t unconnected that the Department of Defense was spending so much on those ceremonies and ads and displays. And they weren’t going to have their time sullied in any fashion, no siree bob.
What will the league do about that now?
For one, the NFL has had to walk back, apologize, and completely reconsider how it handled Kaepernick and those who stood with him, as well as acknowledge what his goals and his cause were. It’s essentially admitted it was all wrong, and whether it likes it or not, those military displays before and during games are part of the reason for the way the league handled Kaepernick in 2016. Is there any way the league or the military can reshape them and not have it seen, at best, as insensitive? Or even insulting? Can either the league or military run them and make it clear they are separate from what’s going on within the country? Drew Brees certainly didn’t think so. And whatever his actions since, we know he’s not alone. Can the league really say, “Well, we didn’t like these protests before because of what we thought it said but didn’t actually say about the military but now they can be on the same field and it’s fine?”
Second, how will fans feel about seeing military personnel on the field after they’ve been deployed against American citizens? We’ve seen the National Guard in various cities. We haven’t seen a service member deployed to quell protests refuse orders or stand with the demonstrators. They’ve been a tool of Trump’s vision of “LAW AND ORDER!” throughout the land (or he just really likes Sam Waterston, who can tell with him?). How many will see the military like that now?
Even the military gear the police have wrapped themselves in will entangle them in this. Do we see armored cars as merely tools for international wars? Or do we see them as a vehicle that local and federal governments used to piss all over the Bill of Rights and Constitution? Do they stand for the overreach and aggressiveness and bastardization of police forces nationwide? It’s not all of the military that were in American streets, not even close. But it was enough to wonder where we go from here.
If Drew Brees or anyone like him felt, or still feels, that the flag stands for the ideals that U.S. soldiers (or his white ancestor soldiers) fought and died for, what do we make of the national guard who chose to protect property over our supposed ideals? Is that what we’ll see on the field now unfurling an 80-yard flag?
We know the NFL hardly needs the money from the Department of Defense or the military. We also know it would be terrified to end any relationship with them, fearing what the section of fans who lost their mud over Kaepernick would think and do. They can say all they want right now, but they’ll still be more concerned with that 8%-10% drop in TV ratings in 2017, that was (at least partially) blamed on Kaepernick, those who knelt by him, and the furor it caused, rightly or wrongly. But how can the league thread that needle? It almost certainly won’t try, but will go with whatever loses them the least amount of money.
Still, we’ve seen the chaos, destruction, and hurt those in military garb with military-grade equipment can cause on our streets. It’s in everyone’s social media feed. There’s still a large split in most minds between the police and the military. But the past weeks have illustrated how much smaller that divide is than we thought. That will only continue. Calls to defund the police in order to fund the things we have ignored for far too long could spread one day into wondering why we’re funding the Pentagon at the expense of those things at a national level (a boy can dream).