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Fixing the national anthem debate means reframing the conversation around the issue - racial injustice

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The NFL has created this problem for itself - how can it reclaim the narrative?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL owners approved on Wednesday a requirement for teams and their players to stand during the national anthem if they are on the field.

So there you have it. The NFL has just told its players and millions of fans “be patriotic and stand because we are too cowardly to address the real issue here.”

No, you’re right. The NFL didn’t actually tell anyone that. It’s too afraid.

Instead, it passed a rule that is completely consistent with that fear, which was exposed last month via recordings during a secretly convened owners meeting in October (coincidentally one month after the president issued his tirade against the NFL, “officially” launching the false narrative that the protest was “unpatriotic” and was a dis on the American military).

In that October meeting, NFL owners revealed their true panic - a loss of ratings and therefore income.

So their move on Wednesday was not some newfound patriotic duty that they hope to encourage among their “employees,” but rather a tactic to force a behavior they need so they don’t lose money. We see even more evidence of that from the decision to not include the NFLPA in any of this, instead dropping the policy change on the players without any communication or input from them.

Ah, the land of the free and the home of the brave.

But as has been typical ever since this issue surfaced two years ago, the moment the NFL announced its new policy, fans and political pundits alike retreated to their familiar ideological positions and took aim - either framing their attacks as “defending the military from disrespect” or “defending a player’s right to protest.”

But the sad fact that has been lost in so many - if not all - of these ideological debates is that no one - especially the NFL - has ever bothered to take the real issue of the protest - racial injustice - seriously enough to have that conversation.

As former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels noted on Twitter, forced patriotism is not freedom.

Instead, ignoring it has brought us to this point - treating players like public school kids and mandating patriotic support rather than recognizing the public forum potential it has as the most popular sport in America.

When Colin Kaepernick silently protested against racial injustice by sitting during the national anthem of a preseason game in 2016 (that became kneeling at the request of a military member) and later led to players and teams across the NFL protesting in similar ways, the NFL had a choice.

It could acknowledge Kaepernick’s message as a legit social concern and frame the debate around what it was - a peaceful and legal commentary on a problem in society.

Or it could hide from the issue and ignore the point, allowing an emotionally charged and usually uninformed public to dictate the debate.

Obviously the NFL chose the latter.

And now it has created the monster it was most afraid of - public backlash.

If the league leadership had backed Kaepernick by publicly supporting his right to peacefully protest, and had gotten in front of the narrative to remind the American public that Kaepernick was speaking out on an important social issue that he felt strongly about - and was not disrespecting the military - then the NFL could have steered the debate into a much more positive forum for the players, the league and the country.

I’m not naive enough to believe we all would have been singing “Kumbayah” and then played football and everything would have been groovy, but I know good vs. bad crisis communication, and this has been a prime example of bad.

Being passive and cowardly, the NFL allowed the false narrative to dominate the national conversation. And when the president put it out there last September, the NFL lost any chance at changing the debate and allowing for a more positive outcome framed by an accurate public conversation.

And those cowardly missteps have put the NFL here, defending the wrong debate by mandating a public (but insincere) patriotic order that could likely now create even greater divide among players and fans.

It is a fact - not an opinion - that the players’ protests were never about the military.

The kneeling during the anthem has always been about the many people in this country - including NFL players - who see and even experience unfair treatment because of their skin color. And in far too many instances, that unfair treatment has been brutal, criminal and even fatal.

And it is also a fact - or possibly just my informed opinion - that as long as the president, the NFL, and the country perpetuate that false narrative and dominate the discussion on this, sports will cease to be a unifying element in American culture. In fact, it will likely become the arena in which our different political and social viewpoints ultimately split us beyond repair.

So the question is, what now? Can the NFL walk back from this ledge it has formed?

Although much damage has been done and the bungled narrative and poor response have tainted the sport for many, the best thing for the NFL to do is to take a page out of a crisis communication textbook: apologize and then go above and beyond to mend the pain.

If I were advising Roger Goodell and the NFL, this is what I’d tell them to do:

Issue a statement apologizing for the mess and for not initially supporting Colin Kaepernick in doing something that was well within his American rights as well as his employee rights at the time (because in the initial contracts with the Department of Defense, taxpayer money donated to the NFL to add patriotic exercises before games, there was never any stipulation that players had to stand).

Remind the public what the intent of the debate has always been about and that it was never an anti-military message.

Apologize to fans for not having made it clear that while the NFL as an organization supports the military, it also supports all the ideals the military have fought to preserve when fighting for this country - freedom, equality, justice - and the NFL should have more forcefully stood up to the president when he falsely accused the NFL and its players of disrespecting the military by allowing the protests.

Explain now to the public that the president’s false narrative has shaped the public conversation in a dangerously inaccurate way and the NFL will not allow that false narrative to perpetuate the national conversation any longer.

Then address the actual injustice through money and program funding in every NFL city, appointing a council of local activists, law enforcement officials and at least one NFL player to get the conversation going within the community to create change at a local level (*a good use of the $90 million for the players’ coalition social justice initiative agreed upon earlier this week).

Finally, publicly announce that there will not be a mandated policy to stand for the anthem but that you encourage players to stand as an act of solidarity with their teammates and the NFL in the pledge to do better.

Encourage teams to discuss as a group appropriate behavior during the anthem and doing so as a team.

But, if players choose a peaceful protest such as kneeling or raising a fist during the anthem, you continue to support the action as a league but encourage players to consider putting their energy toward getting involved in their local communities and utilizing the NFL’s new financial support for such efforts.

Even remind players that if their protest gets turned off by the very people whose attitudes they are trying to change, then it won’t be the most effective for the desired outcome. Given how this protest has soured among so many, planning a more positive approach would be ideal for everyone.

I have no doubt the likelihood of the NFL reversing its (so far) cowardly response to doing the right thing is slim to none, but if the rich, white men in charge of this league truly believe racial injustice in our society is harmful, then they need to stand up and say so.

And if they don’t, then I guess we know what the real issue has been all along.