NFL franchise owners provoked quite a reaction on Sunday and Monday when they walked onto the field and locked arms with players – and, in some cases, kneeled (just not during the National Anthem) – in a demonstration of defiance to President Donald Trump, who late Friday night picked a fight with both the NBA and NFL by first disinviting the Golden State Warriors to the White House, then labeled any NFL player who kneels during the anthem a “son of a bitch” for “disrespecting our heritage.”
But however genuine these displays of solidarity may appear, the New York Times is reporting that the owners’ support is very much contingent on ratings and revenues, and that many will tolerate the protests only as long as they don’t impact the bottom line.
NFL owners are nothing if not businessmen, so until attendance declines precipitously, or it can be determined that the protests have directly led to a decline in television ratings, they are unlikely to clap down on the protests. Indeed, the league got a pat on the back on Monday when Ford and Nike, two big NFL sponsors, issued statements backing the players right to protest.
That could happen sooner than expected, as owners are already being forced to confront the fact that the public’s tolerance for players disrespecting the National Anthem is much lower than they might’ve expected. Case in point: Ratings for “Sunday Night Football” suffered this week, while the crowd at the Dallas Cowboys – “America’s team” – game against the Cardinals greeted the team with boos after owner Jerry Jones joined players in kneeling after the anthem.
As President Donald Trump tweeted last night, the league has plenty of rules governing acts of self-expression on the field. Why not one more?
The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can't kneel during our National Anthem!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017
However, a crackdown also runs the risk of offending players. As the NYT notes, three-quarters of players in the NFL are African American. Meanwhile, only 3% of Nascar drivers – a sport that has so far not participated in the protests – are African-America.
Still, at least a few owners have already said they won’t continue the practice of linking arms with players before games. And, in an unusually cynical take by the NYT, the paper questions whether their initial display of defiance was “a fallback” to protect the brand.
“While it’s too early to know if the protests will continue, and in what form, Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and on Sunday the first owner to be seen linking arms with his players on the sidelines, has said he would not continue the practice in the coming weeks.”
“I’m not a crusader but this was a Rosa Parks moment for the Jaguars,” he said. “I do not plan any future sideline appearances.”
The owners’ decision to go with the players at least this time struck some as a fallback to protecting the league brand, embodied in its ubiquitous shield emblem with the American flag motif.
“The issue of protecting the shield,” said Andy Dolich, a former NFL team executive. “There’s a subliminal dollar sign in that shield, so it is fair to be cynical” about the owners’ motives.
For what it’s worth, league executives told the NYT they have little involvement in owners’ decisions. And while they acquiesced to players who insisted on protesting, the Times notes that the owners, who are stewards of a sports league worth $14 billion, the most valuable in the US, and didn’t ask for this moment in the spotlight.
And some fans say they're growing weary of the protests.
“At this point, I want to get away from politics and if they are going to continue protest, then I don’t need to spend my money there,” said Brandon Gill, a realtor from Jacksonville, Fla, who is considering giving up his Jaguars season tickets. “Frankly, I’m just tired of it all.”
And Gill isn't alone. At least one survey showed that viewers tuned out last year because of the protests. And preliminary data - as well as public demonstrations of contempt like Jersey burnings that some fans have posted to social media - will eventually force owners to confront the fact that maybe countenancing the protesting players simply isn't worth it.