KRAVITZ: After all the kneeling and posturing, the NFL owners will ultimately win this battle

Members of the Indianapolis Colts take a knee during the nation anthem before an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Indianapolis, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The NFL is going to win. Roger Goodell, the owners, President Donald Trump and the Vice President Mike Pence, they’re all going to win. I’m talking about this battle over the way the players – or at least some players – approach the national anthem. When all the yelling and posturing and, in the President’s case, the tweeting, is done, all the players will stand at attention during the national anthem in the days and months to come.

Buffalo Bills players take a knee during the playing of the national anthem prior to an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

It makes me crazy to write the preceding paragraph, hurts me as a First Amendment absolutist who believes we all have the right to dissent in whatever peaceful manner we choose. Since the beginning, whether it was NFL players or WNBA players or whomever, I’ve supported athletes who have chosen to kneel or sit as a way of protesting the injustice they see – the injustice all of us should see, including the meat-headed Mike Ditka, who is not aware that racial oppression is part of our American history.

But the bad guys are going to win here.

Because of:


What else is there?

Why else would the invertebrate commissioner, Roger Goodell, do a complete 180 on the subject in the space of just two, three weeks? Why would Goodell come out originally and support the right of players to protest, then turn right back around and tell players he’s going to go to the owners’ meetings and push for a rule change that would force everybody to stand for the anthem?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell listens at a fan forum with Baltimore Ravens fans before at the Ravens' NFL football training practice in Baltimore on July 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Because he lacks spine, yes. But mostly because it’s costing the NFL money, and money is the god of sports. Because ratings have diminished for reasons both related and unrelated to the anthem protests. Because every poll shows that the majority of Americans are turned off by the kneeling players.

And in the end, Goodell and the owners ultimately have the right to quash this revolt.

It’s like this: There are certain things I cannot say or do as an employee of WTHR. I’m quite sure there are certain things you cannot say or do as an employee of a certain business. This is the NFL’s business, the owners’ business, and as business owners, they have the power to require certain types of behavior from their employees.

At this point, you’re screaming “First Amendment! First Amendment!’’

Listen, all the First Amendment does is protect free speech from sanction by the government. It does not protect anybody, the players included, from sanction by an employer.

I have the right to scream and yell all I want about whatever issue I choose to protest, and WTHR has the right to call me in, tell me to clean out my desk and turn in my key card.

Let me offer a personal example here:

When I was in high school, a Chicago-area group of Jewish synagogues decided to start a high-school newspaper that would serve the North Shore area where I lived at the time. After a few meetings, they (foolishly) made me the editor-in-chief.

After publication of a few issues, I decided to take on the question of whether a neo-Nazi group should be allowed to march in nearby Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb that has a huge population of Holocaust survivors. And when I say head-on, I mean head-on. I wrote a front-page editorial insisting that despite the neo-Nazis’ repellent views, they had a First Amendment right to gather and share their views. The argument against me was that their presence might inspire violence; my argument was that if we silenced free speech based on the possibility it could inspire violence, we never would have had the Civil Rights marches in the 1960’s. Unpopular speech is as protected by the First Amendment as popular speech, and always should be in this country.

Well…that didn’t go over too well, as you can imagine.

There was screaming and yelling and calls for my ouster, and in the end, that was the last time I ever worked for that publication.

The point being, I had every right to exercise my First Amendment rights by writing an enormously unpopular column – a column in a Jewish-sponsored newspaper, no less – and they had every right to thank me for my services and then fire me.

That’s where we seem to be right here and right now.

And it’s a shame, because there was a time, a short time, when Goodell seemed to be on the right side of the issue and the right side of history. He took issue with the President’s insistence that kneeling players –Trump called them “sons of bitches’’ – should be censored and censured. Now, though, we’re a few weeks into this, the President and Vice President, in an effort to distract from the real issues of the day, have made this into a federal case, and Goodell appears poised to do a 180 when the owners meet in short order.

The reason, again, is simple:


Ratings are down. Fans, some of them, a lot of them, are angry. The bottom line is being affected, and if NFL owners are about anything, it’s the bottom line.

“At the end of the day, yes, it’s the bottom line,’’ said Colts safety Darius Butler, who initially kneeled and has become one of the team’s more outspoken social commentators. “It’s a business, and if the bottom line is affected as far as money, viewership, fans, whatever it may be, they’re going to do what they feel they need to do to protect that. At the same time, as players, as men, we have to do what we feel is right to protect our values and our views.’’

Look at Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys’ owner. One week, he’s making a show of things by taking a pre-anthem knee with his players, and then standing for the anthem. Now, he’s on record saying that if his players don’t stand for the anthem, they will, in fact, be pulled from the football field. Not on my watch…

What, I wonder, would happen if Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott took a knee before the Cowboys’ next game? Would Jones yank them off the field? Would he put the anthem in front of winning football games? And if he pulled them, how would Cowboys’ fans react?

All of this has had a chilling effect on those who would share their views, and if you don’t believe that, consider the sad, strange case of ESPN personality Jemele Hill.

Now, I agreed with ESPN when they disapproved of her tweet calling Trump a “white supremacist.’’ I may agree with that sentiment, may agree with it completely, but as a sports commentator, this seemed to go beyond the pale. Sports and politics are inextricably intertwined, now more than at any time since the rowdy 1960’s, but if it’s your job to comment on sports, and your company has made it clear that purely political commentary is disallowed, well, this was something of a no-brainer.

More recently, though, Hill, commenting on sports and the issues of the day – which is her job – she suggested that Cowboys’ fan revolt against Jones’ hardline approach and noted the effectiveness of boycotting companies who do business with the Cowboys. Again…that’s her job.

And ESPN suspended her.


Here’s what I’d love to see: I’d love to see every player, black and white, take a knee. Or raised a right fist to the air. Or even take it one step further, refuse to perform on Sunday. Or Monday. Or whatever day they play. Because nobody comes to games to see owners or listen to the national anthem (how many people spend the anthem at the concession stand, I wonder?) They come to see the athletes.

“What would you do if you were a member of the Cowboys?’’ I asked Butler.

“That’s a tough question, a tough question,’’ he said. “I would just say, you can’t leave anybody out there to dry. Whatever they do, they have to do it in a unified way.’’

In the end, the NFL and the owners and even the Trump administration are going to win this battle. But that doesn’t mean they can ultimately declare victory. Already, teams like the Colts are taking the next step, moving beyond the protest, doing things in the community – like Coffee with a Cop – that are designed to allow them to share their concerns with police and other community leaders. To the degree the protests inspired the conversations, the Colts, who most recently have chosen to stand for the anthem, are actually having those conversations now and plan to continue on that path.

The educated guess, though, is that the days of kneeling are over in the NFL.

This is not about the First Amendment, in the end. It’s about business. And money, it seems, always wins.

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