BY Art Thiel 06:03PM 05/23/2018

Thiel: Anthem protest goes behind closed doors

The NFL will fine teams whose players fail to stand for the anthem. But players who don’t want to stand can stay in the locker room. A compromise doomed to fail.

C Justin Britt joined several Seahawks teammates in social-injustice protests before games at the Clink the past season. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Here’s our civics quiz question for the day: Is a protest demonstration a protest demonstration if it takes place behind closed doors?

If you said yes, you’re probably an NFL owner or a patron of the status quo.  If you said no, you’re probably an African American NFL player who resents the hell out of being told to stifle yourself.

The question arose after Tuesday’s allegedly unanimous vote by the owners — San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York already said he abstained — to fine a team if any of its personnel sit or kneel during the national anthem. Since it’s the teams and not players who will pay, that helps assure that Colin Kaepernick and others of similar mindset will not be hired.

After months of debate on a controversy that shook the league last year, the owners compromised regarding mandatory sideline attendance: Players may choose to sit out the anthem in the locker room before returning to the field.

In other words, you kids can go nuts in the back yard, but when the grandparents arrive, come in, shut your pie holes and be nice.

“We want people to be respectful of the national anthem,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “We want people to stand — that’s all personnel — and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That’s something we think we owe. (But) we were also very sensitive to give players choices.”

But the entire purpose of protest, regardless of subject or side, is a call to attention and a disruption of the comfortable. To suggest that hanging out in the locker room ahead of a belated appearance is somehow . . . well, several guys every game do that to use the toilet.

The Seahawks last season were at the epicenter of the protests. They had activist player leaders such as Michael Bennett, who was joined by up to a dozen teammates in the pre-game sit-downs, a sympathetic coach in Pete Carroll, and a tolerant owner in Paul Allen, operating in a city as far left as can gotten without bumping into San Francisco.

That doesn’t mean all fans and all players were supportive. Much as with the rest of America, fractures were visible.

On the late September weekend when President Trump said players who protested over racial injustice and police brutality were “sons of bitches” who should be fired, the Seahawks were flying to Nashville for a game against the Tennessee Titans.

Players and coaches abandoned the usual road routines and spent hours in meetings deciding how to respond to Trump’s provocations. The meetings grew heated, with some players, black and white, wanting no part of a protest.

Eventually, the team decided to do what the owners Tuesday gave them the option to do: They stayed in the locker room until after the anthem. The less-woke Titans, bewildered by the turmoil, called the Seahawks Sunday to ask what the players planned. After being told, the Titans basically said OK, we’ll do that too.

Neither team was on the field for the anthem  — just as it was by custom in the NFL prior to 2009, when the league pandered to its baser instincts of staged patriotism and ordered assembly on the field.

The Seahawks lost, 33-27. At the time, Carroll denied the disruptive meetings had impact on the outcome. But after the season ended with a playoffs-free 9-7 record, he came clean.

“I think it had an effect in that game that week in Tennessee,” Carroll said. “I think it had an effect on a lot of teams and players. It was an extraordinarily heated time. That was a different amount of emotional output that occurred before the game, and it looked like it, the way we played. It looked like it took its toll.”

Carroll didn’t directly blame his indulgence of players’ political expressions for the loss. But there’s little doubt that supporting players’ sensibilities in a national controversy while trying to win on the road was a management nightmare.

That is part of why the owners, all but one white, have been wrangling since then about an appropriate response to political anger in a workforce that is more than 70 percent black. Owners don’t want to piss off the help until their usefulness has expired.

Another part of the urgency was a decline in TV ratings, which some attributed to audience annoyance with racial politics intruding into the secular church of Sunday football. No one had any proof, but NFL critics made it sound logical.

To avert more trouble, the NFL made the anthem-conduct changes to the game-operations manual, which is not subject to collective bargaining. The NFL Players Association said in a statement that it will review the policy and “challenge any aspect” that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks this offseason managed the protest issue another way: For little in return, they traded Bennett to Super Bowl champion Philadelphia. Football reasons were plenty: Age (32), contract size, increasing frequency of injuries. But the bosses also seemed to tire of the constant buzz around their outspoken player; in some sense, the same thing was likely another reason behind the release of CB Richard Sherman, who was signed as a free agent by the 49ers.

It probably didn’t help Bennett in-house that he was working on a book titled, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.  The book came out in February, and proved less provocative and more insightful than the title may have indicated.

One passage addresses the anguish he felt when some fans blasted him on social media for being unpatriotic, which was a complete misrepresentation of the purpose of the protest. He wrote:

Of all the responses, what bothered me the most was when people said I was dishonoring the military. It got under my skin because I also heard from a ton of veterans who said, “We wore the uniform precisely so people would have the freedom to protest.” It bothered me because my father was in the military. I love my father but I don’t love the hatred I see growing in this country. I love the soldier who, after I started my protest, sent me an American flag from Afghanistan, shaded by dust and dirt from thousands of miles away, and said he stood with me.

I want to use those platforms to reach people to encourage us to see how unselfish we can be. Just because people don’t eat what you eat, just because they’re not from where you’re from, just because they don’t pray to the same god you pray to, just because they don’t love who you love, doesn’t mean they should be treated like they are less than human.

More than many, Bennett had the courage of his convictions. As such people almost always do, he paid a price — he made his bosses uncomfortable enough to move him.

It will be the Eagles’ problem to find out whether Bennett unifies or alienates. Just as it will be for NFL regarding its altered protest policy.

Since it’s hard to find in any group of three Americans two who agree on what the flag represents, the guess here is that the NFL has come up with a compromise that pleases no one. Since we are a polarized people who no longer compromise, the players and owners  will mimic the national political discourse — figuring out workarounds to make sure their side wins and the other side loses. After getting nowhere, one year from now they’ll try again.

It will be harder to watch than last season’s Seahawks running game.


  • Drew Griffin

    Stand up for what is right, even if you stand alone, and I stand with the players.

    • DB

      Which players? The players are as divided as the public on this topic.

  • coug73

    I say dump the National Anthem at sporting events and stop the military displays at all sporting events. I’ve seen my share of giant flags and pseudo nationalism/patriotism. I hope the players have the courage to stay in the locker room or stand on the sidelines. Remember, you work for money, but money doesn’t make the man.

    • Joe_Fan

      Totally agree

      • Effzee

        Everyone is afraid of being called Un-American or Un-Patriotic by the vocal minority of idiots who themselves ignorantly violate the flag code by putting it all over their trucks and wearing it as clothing and underpants.

        • Parts

          They’ve also put so much effort into wrapping everything in the flag and camo etc.. that any move away from that makes it really noticeable. How patriotic is forced patriotism? It all rings so hollow, at this point I don’t see it as being genuine, I see it as the NFL trying to squeeze every last penny out of peoples natural patriotic inclinations. It all comes down to the revenue stream.

  • Jon

    The one person who wins big: Trump. The bully pulpit works. Thanks, NFL.

  • Mavis Jarvis

    The NFL has clearly chosen to pander to the more conservative part of its fan base (and one fan in particular). This short-sighted reaction ignores the real threat to its continued profitability. Although some Trump-loving, red state fans might be annoyed with the anthem protests, in the end they will never abandon their Sunday afternoon pastime.

    It’s the younger, more liberal would-be fans that the NFL should be worried about in the long run. In our increasingly polarized nation, to be seen as siding with Trump will only serve to alienate them. They’ll become soccer fans instead, and the NFL will, over time, lose half it’s fan base.

    As a result, football will become another part of our culture that used to unite us, but now divides us. Great, just what we need.

    • rosetta_stoned

      in the end they will never abandon their Sunday afternoon pastime.

      Maybe you should get to know more of the people you insult. I haven’t watch a single minute of an NFL game in two years and never will again.

      And I was a Seahawks fan since the days Rufus Crawford, Smith and Sims and all the rest.

      So, go ahead and blame people like me for us being divided … just as you choose to divide even more.

      • Mavis Jarvis

        If you’re so hypersensitive that can divine some sort of “insult” from my comments, that’s your problem, not mine.

      • Tman

        Four q’s.
        1. What do you get from being a “conservative”?
        2. Can you name one good thing any “conservative” has ever done for you, the nation or the world since the end of the civil war?
        3. Is it true fellow owners of the USFL blame the Don for its demise?
        4. What happened to the German people who refused to salute the Nazi flag from 1933 to 1944?

    • Terry Pratt

      “chosen to pander to the more conservative part of its fan base ”
      i would hope there are some liberals that are Patriotic, but then who knows.

      • Matt Kite

        Patriotism means different things to different people. To some, it’s about genuflecting to symbols and rituals that convey nationalism. To others, it has more to do with freedom or the pursuit of justice and equality. But your comment illustrates how critics have successfully re-framed the debate. The protest, remember, is against racial profiling, police brutality, and so forth. But critics have convinced a large swath of people that this is all about the flag, the national anthem, and the military. Instead of a justice issue, it’s one of patriotism.

      • Matt

        What would you know about Patriotism? You dumb loser goose stepping behind trump.

  • DB

    The answer to your civics question is yes, but not because of the reasons you suggest. A locker room protest will be just as effective because we can depend on the press to cover it. They will tell us which players haven’t come out and will likely go into the locker room to interview them. No one was paying attention to Cap until the press brought it to light.

    Unfortunately, such locker room protests will be just as strategically flawed. The article title says it all. -Anthem protests. Not social injustice protests. The intended message is mostly obscured since the ensuing discussion is about the anthem, flag, military, patriotism, etc., instead of social injustice.

    Who has done more in the past year to move the dial on social injustice? Mike Bennett or Doug Baldwin?

  • rosetta_stoned

    So in other words, Art supports people doing whatever the hell they want at their place of employment. And their employers can’t do jack about it.

    Good luck with that.

    • art thiel

      What does the anthem have to do with doing a job in a workplace? The team presence at the anthem, a custom begun in 2009, is already a political statement.

  • rosetta_stoned

    And I just love how everybody on the left side of this debate is blaming Trump … when the whole thing started under the previous President.

    But, keep dividing the divide. And blame others for it.

    • tor5

      I don’t recall the previous president having said anything divisive about this issue. But as for the current president, you’re saying it’s divisive to quote the very divisive things Trump has said, but Trump bears no blame for having said them in the first place.

  • Matt712

    A tone deaf response consistent with the average age and social socioeconomic status of the majority of those who have the means to own a professional sports franchise as well as those who sit in higher seats of government.

    It shows the willingness only to solve the problem of the protests, themselves, rather than to collaborate with those who are protesting on the reasons for their protest. And they even got that wrong because the simpler solution would have been to revert to tradition of remaining in the locker room until after the anthem.

    Like Doug Baldwin said, “I’m not surprised, I’m disappointed.”

  • Matt712

    No matter how one may feel about the anthem protests with regard to respecting the flag, it is indisputable that they were disrespectful to the place of employment as they were carried out without their employers’ permission. I would never presume it is my right as an employee to protest on behalf of my personal, social, or political beliefs while on the clock at my job. It’s really the one single issue I’ve had with the anthem protests.

    That being said, it doesn’t mean I can’t be disappointed in a company’s lack of interest, collaboration, sympathy or empathy with their employees and the larger life issues which affect them. But it also doesn’t mean that players can’t use their platform as nationally known athletes to put their money where their mouths (and knees) are to create a publicity campaign on their own time and with their own considerable means.

    The anthem protests have done well what protest are supposed to do: force attention and spur conversation. But should they continue, even under the new ‘rules,’ I think they will provide continually diminishing returns until eventually becoming tiresome and banal, in which case these players will lose whatever momentum they have given to their cause.

    Perhaps it’s time, then, to take the next step. Maybe take a collection or form a co-op of sorts from any player (or anyone else) who wishes to participate in creating a public service campaign that will continue to spread the message in a positive way – a way to which the NFL might even choose to contribute (some it’s good at) rather than be forced to regulate (something it’s awful at).

    • Tman

      Would you agree its time to stop all military parades, flyovers, jumps from helicopters, patriotic chest beating, flag salutes and playing of national anthems at all pro games?

      If not, why not?

      • Matt712

        Yeah, I’m not a big fan of any of that stuff but, as a private enterprise, I’m pretty sure the NFL gets a pretty hefty sum from the USAF to promote their product – that being nationalism. And I don’t think players should be required to have anything to do with it, one way or another. But the players do have a union to address those things. And they do have the power, collectively, to affect change. I guess, sometimes it takes a few brave souls risking their livelihoods to get it started.

  • F_Republicans

    I can understand why some people think it is disrespectful to the flag and what it stands for when one sits in protest.

    Is it disrespectful to the flag and what it stands for when the POTUS stands in front of it and lies to the American people?

    • Tman

      Samuel Johnson’s “Patriotism is the last refuge of a Scoundrel” is a good quote when you consider the number of politicians wearing blue suits with flag pins while beating the drums of racism and war.

      • Michael Ward Johnson

        Absolutely love the quote…

      • Kevin Lynch

        Thank you for bringing up this famous quote. Here is what Dylan did with it:

        “They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings
        Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you a king.” Perfect for Trump et al.

  • Terry Pratt

    BLM are thugs,period. Look up some of the names BLM yells about. You will find they were breaking the law, resisting arrest and running from the Police. Your proud of them?

  • Tman

    Here’s the law:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

  • Tman

    Appears the NFL did not even consider the reasoned policies and programs players put forth to end police violence against unarmed people of color.

    The Billionaire Class has no shame and should be stripped of its monopolies, including pro sports.

    It’s time all NFL teams are owned by the cities they represent, ala the Green Bay Packers model.

    Whenever a monopoly exists, by necessity or convenience, it should be publicly owned.

    We have laws to prohibit monopolies..Anti Trust laws.

    Why do we allow monopolies to exist in a country dedicated to Free Enterprise and Competition? Could it be the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice no longer exists, except on paper?

  • tor5

    Count me as firmly on the side of unsure. I’ve always wished that the players could find another way to protest, but I don’t know what that would be. And, as Art points out, the fact that I’m uncomfortable with the kneeling and sitting is kind of the point of protest. And I surely agree that there is a lot to protest. These are probably the worst times politically in my lifetime. And having a president who happily inflames racial tensions and all manner of division without compunction is a danger to our very union. Still, we are all subject to limits and restrictions in what we say and do when on the job or representing our employer. So I think the owners are justified in this move, particularly since players are not forced to stand if they don’t want to. So, yes, it’s kind of a problematic compromise, but it all goes to the heart of so many ills in our country right now and I don’t see any way to avoid turmoil. We’re in for a wild ride, NFL aside.

  • MarkS

    I’m a Seahawks season ticket holder who always stands for the National Anthem. The fact of it is though many of the fans at games don’t bother to. They’re busy drinking beer and or chatting with their friends.

    Obviously the team management can’t do anything about fan behavior that’s non-disruptive but here’s a suggestion. If we’re worried about proper respect for the flag and National Anthem why can’t concession sales stop during the few minutes the anthem is playing?

    It’s for that reason I see the recent decision on player behavior as capitulation rather than patriotism.

  • Will Ganschow

    What are the chances the players kneel if not in unanimity, at least overwhelming majorities?

  • Michael Ward Johnson

    Amen, Mr Thiel, amen…

  • Kevin Lynch

    With the 87 million dollar commitment the NFL made to black societal causes last year it probably became the #1 donor for this group. Word of advice from someone who spent 30 years fundraising. Don’t make your #1 donor, who is also your multi-million dollar employer, your enemy. You’ll regret it. Stick to the target: racists and bigots. The NFL and the Star Spangled Banner are neither.

  • WestCoastBias79

    I can’t for the life of me figure out what the NFL was thinking. The controversy was already petering out, all they did was reignite it and anger nearly everyone. Now we’re going to see the president tweeting about all the bums in the locker room. This was going away naturally. The NFL ownership really is a circular firing squad. I used to think the NFL’s dominance was unassailable, but the owners of this golden goose seem to be hellbent on killing it.

  • antirepug3

    In 1943 during WW2 the SCOTUS determined that forced or required speech, like standing and/or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance was a violation of the 1st Amendment. I think a case could be made that the requiring of standing for the National Anthem is also unconstitutional.