The announcement was hardly surprising. Audio leaked from an October NFL meeting revealed the extent of the concerns about declining viewership and boycotts by disgruntled fans, and the owners’ eagerness to keep bent knees and raised fists off the pregame sidelines. But it is the statement’s meager concession—Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room—that may be most telling. Perhaps no other league can match the NFL’s obsession with what’s visible and invisible; no other league presents itself so meticulously. In the NFL’s managing of its own story, the locker room, in its literal and metaphorical forms, serves a different function: to maintain the spectacle by hiding the humans—their physical pains and worldly concerns—who make it.
The daily reality of professional football is one of extreme bodily trauma with often life-changing implications. A 2017 study found evidence of concussion-related disease in 110 of 111 deceased NFL players, and former gridiron stars routinely spend their golden years listing their ailments. Growing awareness of the dangers of football has been the NFL’s primary 21st-century challenge; articles about its imminent demise have become as synonymous with the sport as tailgates and crisp fall days.
But while the NFL gestures toward player safety with an increasingly stuffed rulebook legislating legal and illegal hits, the real public-relations work is accomplished by choreography and presentation. An injured player leaves the field and quickly disappears, shuttled to the locker room or the now-ubiquitous sideline tents; he seems to become less an individual than a set of disembodied symptoms undergoing what the NFL refers to vaguely as its “concussion protocol.” In the event that an injury requires extra on-field attention, the TV network cuts to commercial. When the break is over, the pageantry of the game continues onscreen, while the less palatable suffering happens out of sight.
The tenuous success of this approach—the NFL remains a highly profitable business, after all—seems to have informed the league’s approach to the anthem controversy. The allowance for players who do not wish to stand to remain in the locker room is really no allowance at all, but a strategy of appearance; as far as the practicalities of the broadcast are concerned, those players don’t exist until they emerge from the tunnel. (Even this quasi-compromise is too lenient for some; President Trump suggested that players unwilling to stand for the anthem should leave the U.S.)
For many, much of the power of last season’s protests resided in the sudden humanizing of the most anonymous athletes in American sports, via the public broadcasting of fear and anger by players usually covered up in pads and helmets. By extension, the NFL’s response has the effect of reinstituting and enforcing that facelessness, of reducing players to their in-game functions. The fan who demands that politics not intrude on football shares an instinct with the one who prefers not to see the effects of concussions; both want their sport undiluted by the inconvenience of the real world. “We believe today’s decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it,” Goodell wrote on Wednesday, “and on our fans who enjoy it.”