The world of sports has two essential settings: the playing field and the locker room. The former, with its high-wattage triumph and failure, draws its narrative power from the existence of the latter, where athletic archetypes are sometimes revealed to be imperfect humans after all. Almost every sports story is concerned with this distinction. “On the field they won and lost before a nation;” Roger Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer, his classic 1972 survey of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “the clubhouse was a sanctuary, and once inside you tried to relate public performance with private role.”
Wednesday afternoon, following what he called an “unusually productive and busy meeting,” the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement concerning the league’s response to player protests of police violence and racial inequality during the national anthem. (The new policy was agreed to by 31 of 32 team owners, with the San Francisco owner Jed York abstaining from the vote.) Sparked by the then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling gesture in 2016, the protests became one of the defining characteristics of the 2017 season, most notably when President Trump agitated at a rally in Alabama for participating players to lose their jobs. “This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem,” Goodell’s statement read. “Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.” Teams whose employees do not abide by the rules will incur fines, and those employees will face “appropriate discipline” from Goodell himself.
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.”
In the hours following the announcement, many players expressed disappointment. “What NFL owners did today was thwart the players’ constitutional rights to express themselves and use our platform to draw attention to social injustices like racial inequality in our country,” wrote the Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins in a tweet. “Everyone loses when voices get stifled.” His teammate Chris Long was direct in sharing his beliefs about the policy’s motivation: “This is fear of a diminished bottom line. It’s also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism. Don’t get it confused.” The Arizona Cardinals defensive back Antoine Bethea saw the policy as business as usual. “I just don’t like the fact that you’re going to fine guys for really expressing what they believe in,” he said. “But, you know, players really don’t get too much say so in matters like this.” Meanwhile, other observers noted the frustrating irony of the league’s announcement coming the same day that official video was released of a confrontation between police and the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks rookie Sterling Brown over an alleged parking violation. The Milwaukee Police Department acknowledged that officers acted inappropriately when they knocked Brown onto the pavement and tased him.
Goodell’s Wednesday statement doesn’t figure to be the controversy’s final word. The collusion grievances filed by Kaepernick and his former teammate Eric Reid, claiming that owners have conspired to keep them unemployed because of their sideline gestures, remain ongoing, and it is hard to imagine that the new regulations will be enough to prevent further protests across the board. Christopher Johnson, the chairman of the New York Jets, has said that he will pay any fine related to a protest himself, and that his players need not fear discipline from the team. “I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players,” Johnson said. “Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand it if they felt the need to protest.”
Protesting now may be riskier for players, but it could also take on a more profound resonance. Many critics have observed that the society-wide disinclination to challenge or address systemic racism has now been officially replicated on the scale of the league, making the players’ grievances even more immediate than they were before. Any gesture in the upcoming season will be, on some level, about the very right to express dissent, to demonstrate for justice, to argue for equality. “FINE ME!!!!” tweeted the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Dawuane Smoot. “You can’t change my opinion, and can’t stop my protest.”
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