NFL owners reportedly will meet next week in New York, during which the anthem protests are expected to be discussed. But this is no ordinary rule governing player conduct, such as how exuberantly they can celebrate a touchdown. The NFL owners need to recognize that the psychological safety and wellbeing of their players is just as important to their economic interests as federal tax incentives. Without that recognition, there won't be any progress.
White men telling black men what they can and cannot say – that they should be grateful to have a paycheck, and not to use their platform and voice to express their opinion – is an irony, to say the least.
Taking a knee during the national anthem is just as much of a political statement as playing the anthem in the first place – an anthem which mentions slavery and was written by an anti-abolitionist. While many in the NFL (and in corporate America), such as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones believe that politicized self-expression should not interfere with making money, it must be noted that the very NFL enterprise is politicized, as recent research revealed a connection between NFL owners' donations to Trump and the lack of black executives on the team staff.
Given that the majority of NFL players are African American, it is impossible in today's racially charged and politically divided landscape to expect players to stick to the game and be silent on important matters in the public square. Being well-paid for their labor does not require them to relinquish their right to express themselves – in fact, it gives them a greater platform with greater influence that can be stewarded for the greater good.
If the league's priority is truly healing, then it needs to look within at its own policies and practices. Specifically, the NFL needs to address the fact that there are very few black coaches and no black owners in its franchises. Sports is big business, involving not only multi-billion-dollar franchises but also lucrative marketing and advertising deals. For such any business to have such blatant racial inequality is intolerable.
Now the NFL is putting into question everything it stands for as an organization. If owners try to impose a rule requiring players to stand during the anthem, what will be the consequence for those who do not comply? Given the emotional nature of the issue, it seems highly likely that at least some players will continue to protest in some fashion. Jones of the Dallas Cowboys has pledged to bench players who won't stand for the anthem. But what if —hypothetically speaking — every player refused to stand for the anthem? Would games be forfeited? The season be preempted?
It's time for the NFL to decide where it stands. Calls for unity, statements in favor of diversity, and photo ops highlighting moments of interracial cooperation may play well for the TV cameras and the general public. But a rule that would force players to stand for the anthem only serves to turn up the volume on the centuries-old din of structural racism and inequality in America.
Commentary by Dr. Nicholas Pearce, a clinical professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and CEO of The Vocati Group. Follow him on Twitter @napphd.
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