As I discussed in a column in the Hill, the controversy over the anthem protests has expanded into the area of constitutional law with suggestions that comments by President Donald Trump could be part of the basis for his impeachment. While I do not place much credence in such calls (though they constitute a worrisome trend), I do find the political dimension of the controversy fascinating. Polls show that a majority of citizens still share the President’s view that such protests are not appropriate though this percentage has fallen a bit and a majority also rejects Trump’s call for players to be fired for such protests. In the meantime, there is a controversy directed not at Trump or the NFL, but broadcasters like ESPN, which reportedly avoided showing booing fans during these games. There appears to have been a very large and vocal opposition in the stands to the appearance of kneeling players that was not shown as the cameras focused instead on the kneeling players while discussing their protest.
Critics have charged that the networks intentionally panned away from the crowds to avoid showing opposition to the protest and that most of the commentators seemed not only supportive of the protesters but opposed to Trump’s position. One staffer told Sporting News that camera operators were ordered to avoid crowd shots in case they showed fans counter protesting the protests. There is also a suggestion that the networks did not want to irritate the NFL, which controls their access to games.
The protests do represent a substantive threat to the bottom line for the NFL, which is struggling with falling stadium attendance and television audiences. I have been a long critic of the NFL and its history of self-dealing by NFL officials as well as highly questionable practices (particularly during the disgraceful period where Congress did nothing as the NFL claimed to be a non-for-profit while wildly profiteering). My biggest complaint is the NFL is unabashedly anti-fan. Not only does the NFL employ an array of thug-like firms to muscle anyone using common terms like “Superbowl,” but the organization routinely rips off fans to a point that many are now alienated from the game. Indeed, every year I blow a gasket over the deal by the NFL with DIRECTV – making fans change their cable supplier if they want to watch games. Even when you have Direct TV the cost is exorbitant and much higher than any other support. I have DIRECTV which shares a culture of ripping off customers that is only matched by its partner the NFL. We are going to cancel our subscription as soon as our contract expires.
I pay for baseball and hockey games online and I find that the MLB and NHL are fair in their contracts and I willingly pay the cost for watching Cubs and Blackhawk games. It is only the NFL that is ridiculous in shaking down fans. Where the MLB seems to work to make it as easy as possible for fans to get access to games, the NFL openly struggles to make it as expensive as possible. This is one of the reasons that Commissioner Roger Goodell cannot even appear at the Draft without being booed by every fan present. Yet, owners retain Goodell because they appear to like his priorities in putting fans dead last in any decision and bilking them at every turn. When a die-hard Bears fan like me refuses to pay the monopolizing fees of the NFL, you know that you are pricing yourself out of your own market.
There is also clearly an impact (according to polls) of these protests on fans. A sizable number of fans polled indicated that they do not watch the games due to what they view as disrespect for the anthem and the flag. Moreover, according to an exclusive Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, 58 percent said that “professional athletes should be required to stand during the national anthem at sporting events.” There are also 40 percent who support the protesting players and that number is up from 28 percent last year – a significant increase. Moreover, 57 percent of adults do not think the National Football League should fire players who kneel.
Trump is also right that many fans object to the new rules which are turning the NFL into the NBA with continuing violations and penalties. Trump once owned a football team in a now defunct league. I do not agree with Trump’s criticism of those rules, which seek to deal with the very troubling concussion problem in the sport. However, I do think that there are too many penalties for things that do not contribute significantly to that danger. I have always felt that the pass interference rules are bizarre in finding even slight contacts to be interference. The same is true with the rule on roughing the kicker or passer. Many times players simply collide with a player because they kicked or passed the ball at the last minute. The rule is supposed to allow for some leeway but it seems that there is little judgment being exercised.
What is clear is that owners are facing a sizable fan base opposed to the protests and that the NFL itself has alienated fans to a point that would be unthinkable in any other market. The NFL is constantly seen as strong-arming cities for petty perks for its officials while holding up fans at every turn. That is hardly a workable business model. The NFL and Commissioner Goodell has long treated football fans as a captive audience who have no choice to pay them dearly for any service. It turns out that they are less captive than thought and increasingly escaping to watch college football. After, it is the same game without the major drawback of professional games . . . the NFL itself.