NFL can solve perceived anthem problem without squashing free speech

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 28: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell answers questions during the closing press conference at the 2018 NFL Annual Meetings at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Great Lakes on March 28, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 28: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell answers questions during the closing press conference at the 2018 NFL Annual Meetings at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Great Lakes on March 28, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images) /

The NFL has mulled potential changes to team protocols for the national anthem including potentially requiring players to stand to avoid controversy.

After the jets fly by and the generic country singer finishes straining out those last few notes, stadiums reach a fever pitch. Fans cheer their faces off with excitement not just from the display of patriotism but because the game is about to start and they’ve probably had several adult beverages.

But then the captains are announced, we have to sit through the coin toss, there’s a TV timeout, all dulling the verve.

Fixing this continuity of energy problem could also serve another purpose for the NFL: finding a reasonable solution to the anthem protest problem. And whether that problem is the protests themselves or the NFL potentially stepping on the free speech of its players (doesn’t matter which side you fall on) there’s an easy solution: teams in the tunnel during the anthem.

There’s no reason the players need to be on the field. None.

There have been incredible anthem moments at games. Whitney Houston’s rendition at the Super Bowl in 1991 just over a week into the Persian Gulf War stands as a seminal moment in sports history.

Go back, re-watch it and try not to get chills.

It’s not just Houston’s virtuoso voice or glowing smile throughout the performance. There’s dozens of shots of the crowd waving American flags, of the service men and women there to be honored with the singing of the anthem.

You know what there isn’t a single one of? Shots of football players.

Not every game features an anthem performance so involved, so orchestrated (in this case with a literal orchestra), but even for random Week 4 matchups, teams regularly feature large flags, or military unit color guards. Why do the players have to be on the field at all?

Let those last words ring out, the jets fly out, and as the echo of those final notes and the cheers dissipate, hit the smoke button, start the hype music and send the team out onto the field. Imagine how raucous the crowd would be for that moment.

The team can warm up and then just convene in the tunnel where they’ll wait for the anthem to be finished.

Some might argue this solution creates another problem and that is it robs players of a potential protest flashpoint. They’ll say there’s no reason to change the current situation. And that’s true, but it’s also a situation the players are only in because of widely-known lucrative partnership the NFL has with branches of the military to serve as de facto propagandists.

Isn’t not being associated with that directly by being on the field exactly the type of direct action they’re seeing with the protest? It would be even more of a win for the players if this solution came from the NFLPA. Just tell the owners and the league, “We’re out.”

Players haven’t always been on the field for the anthem. This level of pomp and circumstance is relatively new. So rather than have to choose between serving this cause, for those who wish to protest, they’re no longer being forced to participate in something they clearly don’t want to participate in to start with. Forcing the league’s hand to means either they have to say, “No, we’ll keep the current model,” so players can protest, or they agree which no longer forces the players to be involved at all.

That’s a win-win.

There’s no question that is a better outcome for players than being forced to stand, forced to acquiesce to the league on this. And it’s a better outcome for the league than the current situation, at least from the perspective of conservative owners who worry about what these protests might do to alienate some fans (irrespective of whether or not that’s a reasonable enough concern to force them to stand).

It’s a compromise where both sides give something up, but players can still find plenty of ways to speak out. They come out better in this trade than the owners who want to preserve the status quo.

I’ve suggested in the past how stars could refuse to answer any football questions until after being asked about a given topic. Or simply answering questions with words of action and purpose toward a goal, rather than football. With social media platforms and players around the league finding ways to find their advocacy into action, I’m sure they’ll be able to find platforms and vehicles for social justice. Colin Kaepernick is no longer kneeling, but he’s still serving his community in an important way. His legacy remains in the NFL, enduring beyond his time as a player.

In this case, the league still gets to show its patriotic bona fides, something the fans clearly enjoy, while the players aren’t forced to participate. The league gets a little less power and the players give up a small window to give voice to their causes, while retaining their integrity, not to mention their ability to freely pursue those causes outside the confines of the pre-game ceremony.

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Surely players will feel like they shouldn’t have to compromise, and so will many who support the causes for which these players are advocating. The reality is, the league can come down and stop this if it can reach a consensus on regulating standing even though there doesn’t seem to be momentum to that end.

Finding common ground will allow players to not give in to those powers while the league can save face. It’s a win for both sides and makes too much sense to happen. The most likely scenario is nothing changes, players continue to protest, and we spend another season arguing about it. That, in itself, is a type of win for the players and may ultimately be the best outcome toward raising awareness for civil rights and anti-police brutality causes.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with Eric Reid and Kaepernick, that can come at a high price. A compromise come help protect the jobs of players around the league, even if what they’d otherwise be protesting is exactly the type of unjust force keeping guys like Kaepernick from having a roster spot.