Over the weekend, Alexi Lalas tweeted that “it takes courage to actually stand for the national anthem,” after players from both Portland and North Carolina knelt during the anthem at the NWSL Challenge Cup. To the surprise of no one, Lalas was met with outrage and then had to apologize. It is the all-too-common cycle these days for saying something that is true but disliked by powerful, influential voices on the internet.
The National Women’s Soccer League announced yesterday that it will revise its pregame ceremonies during the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. The change will allow players the option to stay in the locker room while the national anthem is played.
This complication isn’t going away. It’s now going to likely spread over to the other sports leagues. Most notably, the NFL. It would be surprising if kneeling isn’t a major storyline in the NFL this season. And one that takes place from Week 1 until late into the season. In the process, it will prove Lalas right. What he said is a fact: it takes more courage now to stand than it does to kneel. It’s not even close.
If you kneel, you are cheered by the media and online. The ones you do alienate are not allowed to say so without chastisement. Standing now will be looked at as despicable. Drew Brees was almost ‘canceled’ for just talking about standing. He had to apologize more than once. Imagine the pushback, outrage, and visit from the mob a player would receive for actually standing for the anthem this upcoming NFL season.
This is undoubtedly a problem for the NFL and any other league that doesn’t mandate its players stand, like the NBA. Whether you are for or against it, the numbers tell us there are many fans who aren’t for it. When players kneel, it’s known, and it’s a story, viewers tune out.
Clay Travis, two years ago, detailed the damaging effects it has on business:
“Instead of taking action against Kaepernick and hoping the protest would die of its own volition, the NFL did nothing to Kaepernick. As a result the NFL is now in the middle of its third straight year of dealing with the protest, league ratings have plummeted 20%, and television partners are losing hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The ratings and revenue are a factor alone. We’ve discussed that at length. They’ll likely drop again. Even more predictably, players are going to be afraid to stand and will join in on what’s expected to be the new norm, kneeling.
NWSL is doing the best it can to prevent that from happening. Allowing players to stay inside and not have to take a stance, because either way is now political, seemingly would help. Though, I doubt it will. The NFL tried this in option previously. It didn’t work or appease anyone.
It won’t take long for some media reporter to quickly shame a player for staying inside the locker room instead of joining their teammates in kneeling. The threat of the backlash will deter players from taking what you’d think would be the safe route. They’ll think kneeling is the safe route. Then, in a week, they’ll find out its a stance that many Americans still find disrespectful to the flag. And those Americans have just as much of a right to feel that way as those advocating for anthem protests. I’ve repeatably said, there isn’t a right or a wrong when it comes to these complex issues. It’s that, each time, it’s sadly judged that way. That’s the problem.
American’s are divided 50-50 on too many topics currently. One they are not is football. Yes, there are media talents who despise the popularity and have built an anti-football brand that has failed on TV and radio. But, overall, football is loved in America. In many ways, it is America. Which makes this looming problem even more disappointing. There is no way around it for the NFL and any other league that gives the players the option to choose.
There are no logical actions to take. None would be satisfying.
The NWSL route, as mentioned, is flawed. If a league chose to play the anthem and keep all players in the locker room, it’d leave only a third of viewers happy. A third of the country would be furious that players can’t take part in a tradition, standing for the anthem. And another third would be deeply bothered that players aren’t allowed to make a statement and protest police brutality. This idea certainly isn’t a win. This doesn’t mean the angry thirds will all stop watching, but some will. In 2016 and 2017, more than enough did.
Leagues that have given players the choice to choose certainly can’t take that away and go enforce the NBA’s policy. Rioting might follow that. There is no win. This is a mess. It’s the world we now live in.
NSWL has a problem on its hands, and so does the NFL.
I’d encourage fans to ignore all of this and just enjoy the games. Some undoubtedly will do that. But many won’t. And that is the unfortunate fact of politicizing America’s favorite escapes.