×

NFL owners' proposed crackdown on anthem protests will create new problems

  • NFL owners who locked arms with players during National Anthem protests are now ready to reverse course.
  • They are considering a new rule that would force players to stand for the anthem.
  • The "hypocritical" move is not about unity. It's all about money.
  • If the league's priority is truly healing, then it needs to address the fact that there are very few black coaches and no black owners in its franchises.
The Dallas Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, center, take a knee prior to the national anthem prior to an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz.
Matt York | AP
The Dallas Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, center, take a knee prior to the national anthem prior to an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz.

NFL players who squared off against President Trump by staging widespread silent protests may now find themselves locked in a new battle – this time, against the NFL owners who are considering a rule that would make standing for the national anthem mandatory.

NFL owners, who previously joined the #takeaknee movement and locked arms with players as an act of apparent solidarity against racial injustice, appear ready to reverse that stance. Instead, they seem eager to appease Trump who has upped the ante in the sidelines protests, suggesting the use of tax laws to penalize the NFL over the issue. This latest threat from the Trump administration is an escalation of the president's earlier "tough talk" tweets, cursing protesting players and calling for them to be fired or suspended.

Now, the possibility of NFL owners imposing a rule on players shows just how hypocritical the league is being. Instead of seizing the opportunity – if not a responsibility – to clarify and demonstrate the seriousness of its stand against racial injustice, the league is showing that its number one priority is money.

Clearly it is not, as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suggested in his letter to the teams, a way to find a uniform approach to addressing the "controversy" over the national anthem. It is the clash between social justice and economic interests. If NFL owners proceed with an anthem rule that compels players to stand, rather than act in accordance with their own conscience, it will only cause more division – not unity.

"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."

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.

For the latest commentary on markets in the U.S. and around the world, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.