Donald Trump greets New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. THE WHITE HOUSE/CC WIKIMEDIA

With more fans than any other collegiate or professional sport, the NFL boasts the highest league revenues as well as the most lucrative television deal in the world.

Yet in recent years, the NFL and its players have been bombarded with controversy, which has served to polarize the league’s fan base. Players choosing to kneel during the national anthem — and the assorted policy and procedural changes that the NFL adopted to address these player actions — continue to be an ongoing issue, even with the 2018 season kickoff.

Nike’s latest “Just Do It” ad campaign, featuring the leader and face of the movement, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, has only served to heighten the debate surrounding the issue.

Kaepernick first popularized the controversial act of kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to highlight racial injustice in the United States. In May 2018, NFL owners finally responded by voting in favour of requiring players to stand during the anthem and threatened to fine teams if players took a knee or weren’t on the field during the national anthem.

As Kaepernick’s social movement has gained momentum, notable individuals like US President Donald Trump have criticized it. Like most critics, Trump believes that kneeling during the anthem is unpatriotic and disrespectful to the men and women who serve in the military. Proponents continue to respond to this point of view by asserting that when athletes take a knee, they are simply practicing their right to free speech.

After the NFL Players Association filed a complaint, Adam Schefter, ESPN’s lead NFL correspondent, reported, “the new policy is going to be no policy,” later explaining that “too many people have stances too strong to figure out a compromise.”

In July, the NFL ultimately decided not to implement the new policy detailing player behaviour during the national anthem and teams sanctions.

By hitting the pause button on their policy, the NFL has recognized that the issue of kneeling during the national anthem is simply too contentious; therefore, the safest course of action is simply to do nothing.

The NFL’s inaction has resulted in a barrage of criticism from Trump. After the first week, the US President continued his social media barrage against the league, tweeting that television ratings for the first game were down from those of last year and “viewership has declined 13%, the lowest in over a decade.”

While Trump would like there to be a link between the NFL’s declining television ratings and players kneeling during the national anthem, the truth is that ratings have been declining for the past couple of years, which is consistent with broader viewership trends across the country. At the same time, the number of players that have decided to overtly protest has also declined, which further discounts Trump’s assertion that kneeling has resulted in lower television ratings.

And while Trump has been extremely vocal about his views regarding this topic, other public figures within the NFL have verbalized their support for the social movement. Detroit Lions principal owner Martha Ford openly challenged his assessment of the situation, saying that “players’ right to express views is part of what makes America great” and that “negative disrespectful comments suggesting otherwise are contrary to the founding principles of our country.”

Even though Kaepernick is no longer in the league, he continues to support players taking a knee to protest racial injustices in the United States and has found a new advocate in Nike. While not all consumers have responded positively to Nike’s new campaign and some have even taken to burning Nike products, the company has seen a 31 per cent increase in sales since the campaign’s launch.

Regardless of one’s stance on the issue, Kaepernick’s message has served to inspire not only NFL owners, players, and fans, but also positively impacted society as a whole.

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