ORLANDO, Fla. — Troubled by back-to-back years of declining TV ratings and data that indicate an erosion of their core fan base, a number of NFL owners believe the solution heading into the 2018 season lies in “reclaiming the narrative” — turning the spotlight away from polarizing social and political issues and focusing on the game itself.
The sentiment is in reaction to an apparent fan backlash against player protests last season calling attention to racial inequality. It erupted into a national firestorm in September when President Donald Trump attacked players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, saying they were unpatriotic and should be fired. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell immediately countered, and the league’s 32 teams followed with statements that varied widely in tone and content — from fierce defences of players’ right to express themselves to affirmations of the U.S. military and its veterans.
Five months later, the NFL is still wrestling with how to extricate itself from a political quagmire that many team owners believe was foisted upon them and stands to hurt their bottom line, if it hasn’t done so already. For a multibillion-dollar enterprise, the stakes and fractious nature of the issue were evident at the NFL’s annual meeting here in late March.
“If you don’t have the fans, you’re dead, so we’ve got to pay attention to them and make sure that they know we respect the flag, we respect our service people, we love our country,” Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said. “Our playing fields — that’s not the place for political statements. That’s not the place for religious statements. That’s the place for football.”
Other NFL owners were less dogmatic when asked about strategy going forward on two fronts: How should the NFL handle the anthem ceremonies, and how can it expand its audience and reclaim fans alienated by the controversy?
“These are really important matters; you can’t minimize anything,” said Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan. “But we have to recognize, people are there to watch a sport — for the entertainment aspect. I think the 20 days football is played have to be treated a little bit differently than the other 345 days. Football is a powerful force in America, and really it bears undue burden because of how big it is and the exposure it gets and the power it has. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t balance all that. But I think the days football is played have to be treated very special, and you can’t have distractions.”
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft called the anthem policy “a sensitive, complicated issue” and said he’d save his comments about it for the owners’ next meeting in May. Among the ideas under discussion: Should they require players to stand? Should they keep players in the locker room until after the anthem is played? Should they uphold their current policy, which requires players to be on the sideline for the anthem and states they “should” stand but doesn’t mandate it?
“I believe with anybody, if you dictate something, whether as a parent or what, you generally don’t get the result you’re looking for if you dictate,” said Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco 49ers. “I think everybody in a democracy has a right to have their voice heard. It doesn’t mean everybody is going to like what you have to say, but you have the right to have your voice heard.”
Recognizing the sensitivity of the issue, league officials urged owners not to publicly discuss the anthem issue. Afterward, in recounting what they were told at their closed-door meetings, one team owner made an exaggerated “zip-the-lip” gesture.
If any consensus emerged over the four-day gathering, which concluded March 28, it was that no consensus may be possible among the 32 owners. That’s why some owners believe the NFL should let each team set its own anthem-ceremony policy while Goodell and his staff should focus on selling the game.
Said New York Giants President and co-owner John Mara: “A number of owners do feel that it should be left up to the teams to handle themselves, and the league and the rest of us should just be working on improving the game and the fan experience. We’d all like to see it resolved; we’d all like to have everybody stand. I think we’ll get there at some point. I’m just not quite sure the means for doing that.”
Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick touched off the controversy with his silent gesture in the 2016 pre-season, first sitting during the national anthem and later taking a knee to protest social and racial injustice. No NFL team signed Kaepernick last season, and he has since filed a collusion grievance. But dozens of NFL players followed his lead after Trump’s profane attack last September. While some fans supported the players’ gesture, others viewed their actions as disrespecting the flag, though that was not the intent, and booed their disapproval. Others simply objected to political messaging on game day; they watch the NFL to escape real-world problems, not be confronted with them.
By any metric, the NFL remains the country’s most popular sport; its games accounted for 37 of the 50 top-rated television shows last year. NFL teams are the most valuable properties in U.S. professional sports, with the Dallas Cowboys topping Forbes magazine’s list at $4.8 billion. Owners’ income from the national television contracts is so lucrative, their teams don’t even need to win to make money. The Washington Redskins have quadrupled in value in the 19 years since Daniel Snyder bought the team for $800 million — now worth an estimated $3.2 billion — but haven’t appeared in a Super Bowl since 1992.
The Buffalo Bills sold for a record $1.4 billion in 2014, and the Carolina Panthers could go for as much as $2.5 billion when their sale is completed this year.
But a TV ratings slide and recent polling data are sources of concern.
Ratings were down 9.7 per cent for the 2017 regular season, according to Nielsen. That followed an eight per cent decline the previous season.
A Washington Post and University of Massachusetts Lowell poll taken before last season found that 19 per cent of professional football fans say their interest in the sport has decreased. Among that group, 24 per cent stated that political issues had made them less interested in football, including 17 per cent specifically citing the anthem protests or Kaepernick. That compares with seven per cent who responded to the open-ended question by mentioning injuries or violence in the sport as reasons for the diminished interest.
Overall, however, those who said the insertion of politics made them less interested make up just four per cent of football fans, according to the poll. Six in 10 Americans say they are fans of the NFL, the poll said, roughly similar to a survey taken in 2012.
Steering the public discourse away from politics and back to the game will be tricky for the league.
Kraft, the Patriots owner, pointed to the six-part Facebook documentary, “Tom vs. Time,” that took viewers behind the scenes of quarterback Tom Brady’s preparations heading into Super Bowl LII as one example of doing so. “I think we as a league have to do more of that,” Kraft said. “I think we have to focus on the game on the field and player safety … We’ve got to bring the fans more into our world so they can see how great these players are.”
The NBA, by contrast, is not shying from engaging in social and political issues, with star player LeBron James doubling down on his prerogative to address injustice in the face of critics such as Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham, who said last month he should just “shut up and dribble.” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr have been withering in their criticism of Trump and his policies.
One week after Sacramento police officers fired 20 shots that killed unarmed Stephon Clark, 22, the Kings and Boston Celtics collaborated on a powerful pre-game statement, wearing shirts during warm-ups that read, “Accountability. We Are One,” on the front and “#StephonClark” on the back. The squads also produced a public service announcement that aired on the arena’s video screen and on social media that opened with Kings rookie De’Aaron Fox saying, “These tragedies have to stop,” followed by Celtics veteran Al Horford saying, “There must be accountability.”
While the NBA grants broad latitude to its players’ and coaches’ activism, it also requires its players to stand during the national anthem. That has largely removed the catalytic issue of patriotism — and fans’ perceptions of it — from the conversation.
In a sense, that’s what the NFL hopes to do — get full participation for anthem ceremonies while providing a platform for players to address social issues in their community.
That’s the idea behind a 10-member social-justice committee, consisting of five NFL owners and five players, that the league launched in January. At their recent meeting, NFL owners voted unanimously to bankroll the seven-year initiative to support community-based, player-driven initiatives for criminal-justice reform.
There is no language — or even implied quid pro quo — that players will abandon anthem protests in exchange for the league’s support of initiatives aimed at addressing their concerns. That is the unstated hope among some owners.
Goodell was pleased, highlighting the initiative when asked whether the league intended to change its anthem policy.
“My focus has been entirely on listening to players and understanding what they were protesting,” Goodell said. “We now understand that much better and have a deeper knowledge from our players as well as from others in the communities. Now we just want to make that platform extraordinary.”
York, the 49ers’ CEO, is a staunch supporter.
“I think we can do a better job of working together of really going from protest to progress,” York said. “I think that’s what we’re focused on, is how do we make progress?”