The NFL loves nothing more than a hollow branding opportunity. Just look at the self-satisfaction on the face of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones when he knelt, uselessly, with his team before the performance of last night’s national anthem. That’s the look of a man who knows he’s taken something that has nothing to do with him and turned it to his own ends.
Unity. That’s the name of the detergent that Roger Goodell, the owners, and the most desperate stooges in the media are going to use to scrub this Trump vs. Sports mess until all that’s left is a shiny, useless bauble. We’re already well on our way. The NFL is literally using this for brand marketing:
Colin Kaepernick took a knee for a specific reason: He was protesting police brutality and the unfair treatment of minorities in this country. And while plenty of chuds were happy to mock it as the vacant posturing of a multi-millionaire with nothing on the line, the fact is that not only was he risking something—his career, as it turned out—but it was part of something broader. Kaepernick has put his time and his money behind causes that seek to make this country a better one for the oppressed. The same is true of other players who have demonstrated before games. Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin, just to name two, have lobbied for criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill and supported organizations that provide career counseling to low-income minority men. These are actions taken in pursuit of concrete solutions to real problems, and they’re what every pre-game act of protest is meant to draw attention to.
But where does the attention lie now?
For as much as the events of the past weekend were framed as Trump going to war with the NFL, our bum of a president did Roger Goodell and the league a huge favor. All they had to do was release a few limp-dick statements tsk-tsking Trump’s comments for their divisiveness, come up with a few meaningless shows of pseudo-solidarity like we saw in Arizona last night, and poof: Suddenly the anthem protests aren’t about a very specific set of problems plaguing this country, but about “unity,” a cause more hollow than anything 25 branding execs could ever dream up in a conference room. Roger Goodell is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Colin Kaepernick isn’t.
The worst irony here may be the way the NFL’s new marketing initiative not only appropriates the protests, but perverts their meaning. Kaepernick’s protest and the ones that followed were divisive, and were meant to be: That was the point, to ask people to choose sides, and to direct their attention to what’s going on in the real world beyond sports. Goodell and the owners, in asking everyone to come together around the cause of the NFL itself, have done what they always do, and made what they’ve touched cheaper and smaller.
It’s been weeks since a coalition of NFL players sent a memo pleading with Goodell to offer real, tangible support for their activism. Included in that memo was a specific list of activities that Goodell could take part in in order to help them achieve their goals of bail reform, increased police transparency, and passage of Clean Slate legislation. Who knows if Goodell has done any of the things he was asked to do in that memo, or if he ever planned on working with the players at all. What’s clear now, though, is that he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to.
All he has to do now is remain united with his players in favor of the NFL and good things like vague civic virtues, and against bad ones like any actual discussion of how to make good on the promises those virtues offer.