It’s ironic that a sport like football that is all about taking things head-on in a physical sense can’t seem to translate that smash-mouth approach to how it approaches moral matters.
Whether in the NFL’s habit of tut-tutting past an endless string of stories about players in legal trouble, or failing to organize around the very basic idea that abusing women will result in swift and sobering punishment, or slipping meekly away from the nova-like moment of leaguewide anthem protests, the amassed megatons of brawn appear weak.
Specifically, directly addressing the understandable offense taken by reasonable people over the protests should be a relatively light lift in whatever units are used for measuring apologies. Nevertheless, the NFL seems content to move on without directly addressing any of it.
The team I’ve loved since the time we both were kids in the mid-1970s, the Seattle Seahawks, seems especially happy to pretend as though the whole thing was a bad dream. Pushing the whole episode down the memory hole is a mistake. True fans have an amazing capacity to carry grudges. There are Hawks fans who continued to despise one-time owner Ken Behring – the man who actually packed up the headquarters in preparation to take the team to Los Angeles – until the day he died.
And ask former Starbucks CEO and Seattle Supersonics owner Howard Schultz whether the city has fully forgiven him for what many feel was an act of betrayal in allowing the team to be sold out and moved to Oklahoma City.
To be sure, the Seahawks have responded in some ways based on the public’s reaction. In Week 5, Seattle Seahawks fans witnessed a pre-game ceremony that didn’t look much different than what was typical prior to Week 4. Players standing. Some locked arms. Some hands over hearts. And at yesterday’s Week 5 match-up against the Los Angeles Rams, even the team’s standout anthem protester, all-pro defensive end Michael Bennett, stood with the team for the first time this year. Hurrah.
There’s just one problem: the leaguewide protest action of three weeks ago was less peaceful speech and more political punch. That blow was felt a broad enough swath of Americans that it shouldn’t be dismissed as the overreaction of right-wing-variety snowflakes. The Seahawks organization was a leader in the effort and neither the team nor the league have stepped up to acknowledge the message they sent, perhaps inadvertently, to fans.
“Look, we put everything back the way it was before. Good! Right?” mewed the league hopefully.
Not so fast. Diehard Seahawks fans who took the slap may deserve something more than an unspoken agreement to not slap them again. If the team wants to win back any respect from those fans, it’s going to have to make some effort to address the slap. Own it, recognize the insult, and let’s move on. We can start by breaching the great divide of perception that persists between protesters and those who see the protests as inextricably aimed at the flag.
At last mention, Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll still contends that he doesn’t believe the protests were a “denigration” of the flag and in the aftermath has defined such acts as a way to “stand against hate and dehumanization and equality for all people.”
The hyper-compartmentalization by Carroll and others to separate the protest from the only other thing happening at that time is still quite stunning. Keeping those blinders strapped on also prevents a rapprochement with alienated Hawks fans. That fan resistance isn’t pouting or intolerance or snowflakery.
Consider that you are attending the wedding of a Catholic friend. At the penultimate moment of the ceremony, you stand, turn your back to the altar, and profess your disapproval of the Church’s position on same-sex marriage. Consider then that you explain to your friend that you weren’t actually being disrespectful of their beliefs, their church or the sanctity of their moment. Consider then that you just lost a friend, perhaps for life, save for one last-ditch act. You do the right thing, suck it up, and make an honest and contrite apology.
Of course, professional sports are not a religion; neither is national pride. The point is that scheduling matters when it comes to how context will be interpreted. Planning a protest to suggest inequality and racism are woven into the American DNA is one thing. Having it coincide with the presentation of said nation’s flag is bound to be seen as intentional. Making it a league statement pits fans who vehemently disagree against the league. It’s fitting that a protest over the freedom to protest has unleashed in some disaffected fans the freedom to choose pumpkin patches, long walks, or reading a book over watching sports, as the decline in ratings appears to show.
So, Seahawks, is it time yet to begin the healing? As one seriously committed lifelong Seahawks fan, I’d like to see something happen. There is only so much entertainment one can squeeze out of a pumpkin patch. I can take a long walk any other day of the week.
Speaking only for myself, I’m not asking for a guarantee that all players will stand for the anthem, because compulsory respect isn’t actually respect at all.
Furthermore, I certainly don’t want players who were initially involved in the anthem protests to be pressured into abandoning whichever cause they were supporting. In fact, the only silver lining to be found here would be an honest opportunity to listen and learn from each other, to challenge preconceptions, get to a common set of facts about the issues at hand, and find some common objectives based on things we can all agree need to change.
Individual actions were not ever really a breaking point issue for me or most other fans. I know that because we were doing okay as recently as four weeks ago. Sure, it was the kind of “doing fine” that involved some tolerance that American football had become ever more soaked in the liquor of liberal politics, but it was easy enough to grind your teeth, roll your eyes and ignore it. And then the individual kneeling metastasized into a leaguewide action.
For the entire NFL to unite in a protest action was markedly different from the isolated player protests. Everything changed the moment it happened. It became a “thing.” To defuse it requires recognizing what it was to many people and some clear, public commitment to make it clear that protests are fine, but not those that coincide with a moment we reserve for respecting the flag. Individual acts of disrespect will still be distasteful, but easy to ignore without the appearance of endorsement by the entire team or the league as a whole.
We’ve given a lot of time, money and emotion to support a team. A simple sign of respect in reciprocity for all of that seems like the least we can ask.
[Ed. This story was corrected to indicate that Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett stood during the singing of the national anthem before the Oct. 8 game against the L.A. Rams.]
[Photo credit: AP]
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