The NFL will never give up the national anthem salute. The NFL owners in one form or another will make it official when they meet to hammer out a policy on what players must do when the national anthem is played. Let’s be clear, the NFL’s tie to the national anthem has nothing to do with the oft-cited contention that the Defense Department bribed the NFL to the tune of $5 million between 2011 and 2014 to honor soldiers and vets at its games. This supposedly required players to stand at rapt attention during the playing of the anthem before games. $5 million is not even pocket change to a multi-billion-dollar league.
It also has nothing to do with a bunch of ticked off NFL owners hectoring the players to beat back their sideline protests and show them who is boss. And it certainly isn’t because one owner, namely Dallas Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones, has been screaming loudly that the national anthem must be respected no matter what.
The national anthem and the flag are not just the nation’s enduring symbols and paean to American patriotism, they are the standard for America’s military tradition and might. From its very inception and its rising popularity in the latter part of the 19th century, football has been inseparable from both. West Point and the military academies used football as a training vehicle to recruit, train, instill toughness and discipline and most importantly prepare its cadets for warfare. By the turn of the 20th century, football was played on 20 of the nation’s military bases. During World War I, football was virtually enshrined on the military bases to instill military discipline and combat toughness.
By World War II, football had virtually become part of the curriculum within the military academies. It got a virtual exemption from the tight constraints put on civilians during the war. Even when some college games were cancelled at the mid-point of the war in 1942, and non-essential civilian travel was barred, the Army-Navy game was still played. Government officials considered the game vital to the nation’s morale.
Football crowds were revved up with military bands, flag salutes and displays, and cannon and gun blasts. The ritual included continual reminders of, and tributes, to active servicemen and women and veterans bedecked in full military regalia, decorations and medals. The NFL quickly fell in line and embedded the rituals of military pomp, flag and patriotic displays into all pre-game activities. The players and coaches and even team owners have dutifully answered the call to arms over the years. More than 1,200 have served in combat and other service capacities in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. For more than a half century, NFL players under the league’s official auspices and in tandem with the USO have trekked to military bases, ships and even combat areas from Vietnam to Iraq on goodwill tours to boost troop morale.
That’s not all. The NFL is not just in the business of paying salutes out of history and tradition and patriotic loyalty to the military and the flag. It’s also in the business, literally, of promoting both. It has a lucrative partnership with USA Football, Inc. which licenses and sells millions of NFL apparel and paraphernalia that carry the NFL logo and uniform designs through the NFL FLAG program. NFL FLAG also sponsors and promotes youth training camps, and football related sports programs.
The military and patriotic rah-rah came easy for an NFL which is not, and never has been, a democracy. It’s a quasi-militaristic, top-down organization. It’s run by an entrenched elite core of billionaire owners who set the tone and determine policy for the league. They are mostly conservative Republicans, some very outspoken Republicans. They have contributed money, lots of it to Trump and other GOP presidential candidates over the years.
Then there’s the NFL’s majority fan base. They have made it clear in informal polls, surveys, and by raining loud boos down on the relative handful of NFL players that have knelt during the national anthem that they will have no regard for any player who “disrespects” the flag. Many go much further than Jones and are not content with benching them, but want them out of the league. They certainly have made that clear about the man who started it all, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. They don’t want him in the league, and the owners have heard them. They listened to them and blackballed Kap because they are the ones who pack stadiums and plop down tens of millions for tickets and assorted NFL paraphernalia.
Some players, some sportscasters, some elected officials, and all civil libertarians will shout that compelling NFL players to stand for the national anthem is crass, crude, employer bullying and a blatant disregard of the First Amendment. They’re right. But the brutal reality is that the NFL power brokers have the supreme dominance to enforce their “take it or leave it” dictate on the players, and a big part of that will remain standing bolt upright for the national anthem.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. His latest book is The Trump Challenge to Black America (Middle Passage Press), which will be released in August. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.