Hey NFL, Kapernick Has Kept Me Watching

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“NFL logo” by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash

The first major pro sport I paid attention too was the NFL. The Los Angeles Rams in the Fearsome Foursome years got my attention as a young boy in South Gate. There was great celebrity around the team in the late sixties, especially around the ferocious defensive line. The Fearsome Foursome of Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy, and Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier were terrorizing quarterbacks and getting lots of attention in the City of Angels.

That celebrity only increased when one of the Fearsome Foursome, became a vocal and visible supporter of Robert F. Kennedy for President. Roosevelt Grier became a part of the candidate’s entourage and inner circle. The imposing defensive lineman served as an informal bodyguard as well. When Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy just up the street from my house in South Gate, Rosey Grier was by his side.

Politics and sports often intersected in the sixties. It was during this time that Tommie Smith and John Carlos from track-and-field caused controversy over their raised-fist salute, a symbol of black power and the human rights movement at the Olympics. They performed this act during the medal award ceremony while the Star Spangled Banner played at the Olympics. They suffered financially and professionally for those protests.

It was also during the sixties that Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay throws his own Olympic medal into a river. He does so in frustration over the fact that winning a gold medal for America still was insufficient to get him a cup of coffee in an all white diner back home. After beating Sonny Liston, Ali, renounces his “slave name” Cassius Clay, and publicly declares himself a Muslim going by the name of Muhammad Ali.

Later in the decade, Ali refuses to comply with a military draft order citing his conversion to a “non-violent” faith. As jarring as such a statement is to the ears of twenty-first Americans, it was the basis of Ali’s refusal. He went on to make some more compelling statements about the insanity of him going thousands of miles to shoot Viet Cong that had done him no personal harm or insult. Ali was stripped of his title for his actions.

Though Ali eventually won a court case that kept him out of Selective Service, he did not regain the heavyweight boxing title. He had to climb his way back and WIN it it back in the ring. Many athletes of the sixties that got tangled up in politics suffered serious damage to their careers. There were serious financial consequences for athletes to make political statements.

The seventies saw Andy Messersmith open the flood gates of money for professional athletes by winning his free agency case. Professional athletes seemed to have so much more to lose after that. Also, Ali’s redemption seemed to send the message that all was forgiven and things were better now.

Since that time, athletes have tended to stay out of politics. The rationale went that their salaries were so high that they could do much good with that money. To jeopardize that money for political protest did not make sense. Not only their families, but their communities benefited from the large salary a professional athlete could draw, so why squander it on protest that did more harm than good. Of course, this is the altruistic narrative. There have been many that simply felt that they deserved the money given what the owners were making and their own inflated images of themselves. Who can really argue.

Over this time, being a Los Angeles Rams fan had been emotionally trying. They eventually relocated to St. Louis. They finally won a Super Bowl there, but though I myself had left Southern California too, I found it difficult to root for St. Louis. Sure they were the “Rams”, but St. Louis?

This franchise roulette probably caused me to begin to lose touch with the NFL as the new century dawned. The traditional teams and rivalries began to disappear. Monday Night Football, which I used to love to come home and watch with my young sons, started to fade into the background and go to cable. Football began turning up every night of the week it seemed. When Monday Night Football left broadcast television, the one guaranteed game a week that I watched was no longer as easy to access.

Also, my sons began to play soccer and I tried my hand at coaching the game. I began to watch soccer on television to learn about it. The one thing that quickly becomes apparent about soccer is there are no timeouts. There are no play stoppages at all except for free kicks, penalties and injuries. There are only three substitutions allowed and if you leave the game you are not coming back. It was far from boring, but rather it was riveting.

As I studiously watched soccer games, especially the Premier League, I really lost touch with the NFL. When I came back and watched a game or two, I was appalled at the amount of dead time in an American football game. There are a few seconds of action followed by a shuttling of players and a discussion as to what the next play will be. An English football game will go two hours at most. There will be two forty-five minute halves, some “stoppage time” added to each half and a half time for the coach’s and players to get ready for the second half. An American football game typically takes over three hours of viewing time, though the running clock is only for sixty minutes.

Admittedly, most of that time in an American football game is not actually the game of American football under a running clock. It is huddles, shots of sidelines and coaches in headphones as well as interminable amounts of commercials. Compare this to an international football (soccer) game where the moment one turns one’s head there could be a “wonder” goal and the NFL starts to seem boring. Remember there is really NO stoppage of play EXCEPT for half time. It became quite clear why soccer never caught on in America, there is so little dead time in the game that there is no time for commercials.

Soccer definitely helped separate me from American football, but one cannot diminish the effect that lack of loyalty in franchises damages the brand. Al Davis of the Raiders, like Andy Messersmith did for athletes, freed owners. The Colts, a storied franchise, snuck out of Baltimore in the dead of night and went to Indiana. A proud franchise, the Houston Oilers, evaporated into Tennessee as the Titans. These are just a few examples of the fluidity of franchises in the NFL.

The interminable length of the games, excessive commercials and the slipperiness of franchises has a lot more to do with the declining ratings in the NFL than Colin Kapernick’s anthem protests. In fact, as I have tried to reboot my interest in American football probably due to the fact that the Rams have returned from St. Louis, Kapernick’s story has been intriguing. The NFL has made a real mess of it though.

Kapernick was playing stunning football in San Francisco. He started to make plays that made people recall Steve Young, a hero of the 49'ers franchise. I paid attention to Kapernick, because he was playing impressive football.

Then he sits during a national anthem and that really gets my attention. What is this about? A star athlete making a political statement? I was taken back to the days of my youth when athletes made political statements. Of course, all hell breaks loose and Kapernick doubles down. He has spoken to a Green Beret, who advised him to “take a knee”. Taking a knee was the way to respectfully protest, not sitting on the bench.

I agreed with the Green Beret. It grated me to see Kapernick sitting on the bench, but if he walked out with everyone else and took a knee with his head down, well that was respectful protest. It certainly seemed that way to me. Besides a Green Beret had advised it as well, which probably emboldened other NFL players to take the action. If the NFL had simply allowed the players their rights to express themselves this might already have blown over.

For many of the players the issues Kapernick was bringing attention to affected them. Surely, many of them had been stopped for DWB, “driving while black”. Just as Ali had learned years before, athletic prowess was not enough to make America color blind. It was annoying I am sure to be stopped by police in a clear act of racial profiling, but the salaries were large. Things continued to degrade though and now in the twenty-first century there seemed to be a lot more black men being shot without the police going to jail.

I have some strong opinions about why the police are not being punished for these actions in the USA, I already wrote about that though. Clearly, black men are being stopped and shot with greater frequency than whites. In addition, Kapernick compelled me to go back and reread all the lyrics in the Star Spangled Banner. The lyric celebrating the death of rebellious slaves that fought on the side of the British made me reconsider its use as the nation’s anthem.

These are all the things that are supposed to happen when one engages in conscientious protest. It forces people to think and to consider ideas that they might not have otherwise. That is doubly so when the protester suffers loss. Kapernick has definitely suffered loss, but though other protesting athletes have backed down to pressure from owners, Kapernick has held fast.

While Kapernick suffered financially and the owners sought to suppress other players protesting, I watched. I was reminded that every once in a while protest can be effective. It is most effective when the protesters hold onto their beliefs despite their losses. Kapernick was demonstrating that there was something more important than money. It was the first time in a long, long time that I had seen such behavior in an American athlete.

I had to support that. I believe in that. I also had to watch the NFL, because they were claiming their ratings were going down due to these protests. I ignored the interminable commercials. I tolerated the bipolar spectacle of a few seconds of frenetic action followed by a meeting. I endured ridiculous player celebrations that came after making a simple tackle. The player celebrations often made it seem like they had just scored a game winning touchdown and not just made a simple play.

I watched. I wanted to help prop up the ratings. I did not want to contribute to the declining ratings. I watched, because I kept thinking, if we watch, maybe Kapernick will get hired back. Maybe he will get a chance to play again, because people will see that his points are valid. Instead of that, I have been force fed nationalism and further militarization of the NFL. I had to watch coaches and players parade the sidelines in accouterments all done over in camouflage. I had to listen to #45 urge the NFL to ban more players for exercising their free speech rights as citizens.

I have watched the NFL paint itself into the corner. The NFL continues to up the ante on the national anthem. The NFL is increasingly beginning to line up with a certain segment of the American political scene. This weekend I tried to watch again, but I was unable to get too far. I only briefly watched the Titans play the team without a country, the Chargers, in London.

I sat down to watch the Titans play another fugitive franchise. The NFL has aspirations of spreading its brand across the globe much the same way that the English Premier League has done. The English soccer giants now regularly tour the United States during the summer, so that there growing fan base in the “Colonies” gets to see the teams in person.

At the beginning of the game in Wembley Stadium, the crowd of British citizens was instructed to stand and be respectful for the national anthem of the United States. I am as proud as any Yankee, but Wembley Stadium is in another country. The fans in the stands are all citizens of that country, Great Britain. It truly seemed perverse to ask them to stand for OUR anthem in THEIR country. It seemed especially perverse when I imagined being forced to stand for “God Save the Queen” before a Chelsea-Manchester City game at the Rose Bowl.

I thought about that for awhile. Before too long I turned the television to a soccer game. There seemed no point in watching the NFL. They have locked themselves into this hyper-nationalist pseudo-patriot cage. They cannot even see the perversity of trying to export your sports product under a nationalist banner. They cannot see that the NFL is a sporting entity. The NFL is not an arm of the American military. American football is a sport, it is not war.

The NFL owners are going to be hard-pressed to get themselves out of this mess. I strongly advise them to get Kapernick back onto a team. I feel pretty strongly that he can play football at the NFL level. The only reason he is not on a team is he is banned from being hired. If you bring him back, I might be able to watch the league reform itself. I would like to see the NFL return to being a sport rather than a political brand.

Time is getting short though. The NFL is a young man’s game. Even if Kapernick still has the ability, he is getting older. Finally, the magic that Kapernick was bringing revolved around the personal sacrifice he was making by not playing in the NFL. His beliefs meant that he had difficulty making money and nothing measures how sincere one’s protest is than when loses money and fame to do it.

That magic is all ending now though. Whether the NFL hires him back or not, Nike has hired Kapernick. I don’t really know how it is going to work out. I am wearying of the militarization of American football. It is clearly a sport that is on the decline. Chronic traumatic brain injuries are taking the luster off the game. Nonetheless, I wanted to make sure I went on record to say that the last few years of me watching football have largely been about Kapernick.

I specifically have forced myself to continue to watch, because there has been so much hyperbolic rhetoric about the NFL’s declining ratings being related to the anthem protests. I submit that had the NFL been a little more progressive, they may have energized a whole new set of fans. Young fans that could have kept ratings high for some time.

The NFL is misplaying the Kapernick anthem protests, but not sure this is really why the ratings are going down. It seems more likely that the interminable commercials, lack of action and a dearth of team loyalty are the main reasons for that decline. I have tried to hang in, but my patience is winding down and I had spit out these two thousand words on the reasons why I don’t want to watch.

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