NFL’s National Anthem: Divide and Conquer

by on June 4, 2018 · 11 comments

in Civil Rights

By Beau Grosscup

So here we go. The 2018 National Football League (NFL) season may start with the NFL owners brilliant triple-edged National Anthem policy based on a militaristic, jingoist right wing bastardization of patriotism (espoused and aided by Donald Trump) to, as Dave Zirin writes in The Nation, re-establish their control over a restless, aggressive, largely Black labor (players) force.

This makes sense. The NFL is big business in a capitalist political economy, thus class conflict is expected and not new. Over the decades it has produced a NFL Players Union (NFLPA), player and game officials’ threatened and real strikes, a management lockout and lots of strikebreaking scabs.

NFL management’s use of ‘supra-nationalism’ to fight Labor is also neither new nor unexpected.

During the Vietnam War, the NFL also used the playing of the National Anthem before games to misrepresent militarism and jingoism as patriotism in order to bludgeon players (Labor) into submission. In 1968, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle (note: the commissioner is an employee of ownership) got wind of an NFL-player-initiated anti-Vietnam war petition headed to the White House.

Fearing a NFL player National Anthem protest akin to the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Rozelle not only flouted the law and enforced strict National Anthem player decorum, (hold helmets in left hand and salute the American flag) but also ran St. Louis linebacker Dave Meggyessy, the perceived anti-war ringleader (and Colin Kapernick/Eric Reid of his day), out of the league.

Meggyessy’s charged crime was violation of NFL anthem decorum rules.

But his real crime was three-fold. First, daring to exercise his first amendment right to protest. Second, abiding by the 1943 Supreme Court decision wherein “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Third, and most important, Meggyessy suggested the NFL was allowing professional football to be used as a platform for pro-war propaganda and militarism. To Roselle (who ruled the NFL with an iron-fist), Meggyessy and the other ‘dissident’ players (Labor) had to be tamed before they dared think, let alone act, as though they were normal citizens with constitutional rights. Roselle and the NFL owners used jingoist supra-nationalism (symbolized by the National Anthem decorum) to divide players against themselves by putting them in an untenable public demonstration of Cold War bi-polarity: are you with us (pro-USA) or against us (pro-Communist).

The same is true today.

By the very nature of nationalism, the new policy will, in the minds of NFL owners and their jingoistic fans, divide players into three groups; traitors, big traitors and patriots. Traitors: players who choose to stay in the locker room during the anthem, only to be castigated for doing so as they run onto the field. Big traitors: players who come to the field and kneel during the anthem. True red white and blue patriots  (the owners’ favorites): politically correct players who come to the field and stand during the anthem.

The immediate likely outcome is open hostility among players on and off the field. Owners and bloodthirsty, “oh look at that great hit!” fans, win big time.

Unless NFL players (Labor) come up with a united front against the new anthem policy, the more important implications of this tri-part division are long-term and societal in scope. For NFL players, the issues that directly affect their active and post professional lives (labor rights, retirement benefits, player safety, concussions, challenges to the macho/patriarchal/racist culture are among the most obvious) are at stake.

The NFL owners, aided by the vocal right wing jingoist NFL ‘fan base’ (pitched by the owners as ‘the’ NFL fan base they ‘can’t’ lose) are ready to pounce. Divided, thus powerless, the players are easy prey for management challenges if not roll back of (principally via legal action and non-enforcement) the gains they have recently made on issues noted above and others.

Ironically, with the new findings on player injuries, particularly concussions, the old management adage/excuse for player abuse, “you know what you signed up for” will carry even more weight among NFL owners, their ‘fans’ and even some players. This is especially true if, as Dr. Harry Edwards predicts, the NFL will soon be nearly all Black with a significant number of players having few professional options other than football.

Since the influence of the NFL is so great in the business of American sports, the outcome of this struggle over the National Anthem is sure to have huge consequences for all participants and fans at every level of sport.

Because two NFL players named Kaepernick and Reid took a knee to protest racial injustice during the National (not military) Anthem, as is their constitutional right, at a football game, it already has brought challenges to and rethinking of the connection between nationalism and sports.

But now, with its anthem policy and presidential blessing, the NFL is prepared to re-assert that connection camouflaged (an appropriate military maneuver) as good old North American patriotism. Of course, were NFL owners really interested in solving their National Anthem ‘problem,’ they could either stand up for players’ (and their own) right to protest wherever/whenever, even during the anthem, or stop playing the anthem before games.

That they don’t choose either constructive solution is evidence they have other goals in mind.

So, expect that, encouraged by a rabid militaristic jingoist nationalist minority with a big megaphone, within a White House-produced climate of political, legal, racial, patriarchal and class ‘hypocrisy,’ the NFL will keep playing the Star Spangled Banner before each game and collect millions of taxpayer dollars for ‘paid’ jingoism (masquerading as patriotism) to the detriment and danger of us all.



{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

RB June 4, 2018 at 5:07 pm

“Employees who work in the private-sector do not, as a rule, have First Amendment protection for their speech in the workplace.” Employees representing the employer do not have the right to offend customers or harm the relationship between the customer and employer.


Beau Grosscup June 5, 2018 at 8:40 am

This works both ways. A player who stands for the National Anthem by definition also ‘offends customers ‘(for example me since I believe nationalism and paying homage to it are destructive concepts and acts for humanity and proven to be so) or harm the relationship between the customer and employer (I have negative feelings towards NFL owners who force players to celebrate/support owners position on nationalism or lose their job/be punished).


Chris June 6, 2018 at 5:31 pm

While I am in full support of the players having the right to kneel in protest, this back and forth between Beau reminds me of:


Chris June 6, 2018 at 5:32 pm

Between you and Beau.


unwashedwallmartThong June 4, 2018 at 7:15 pm

Boot on nape . . .


Eric June 5, 2018 at 1:45 am

RB, the good thing about that is as a consumer I have the absolute right not to buy, use or view a product that an employer that unjustly muzzle their employees creates. As I emailed the NFL just the other day that no longer shall I view product. The NFL and their franchises and advertisers are dead to me and mine.


nostalgic June 5, 2018 at 12:59 pm

I have never understood why kneeling for the national anthem is an insult and standing is not an insult. Kneeling doesn’t seem disrespectful to me at all. It only indicates a different form for support for our freedoms, that’s all.


kh June 7, 2018 at 12:23 am

It takes two.

The player can choose to stand or kneel, and use his platform to push whatever cause he wants.

And I can choose to not care what that wealthy entitled pro athlete thinks.

Maybe more of us could go that route and just get back to enjoying watching sports. We don’t have to let political division permeate every aspect of our lives. I don’t really care what my favorite musicians or Hollywood actors think, any more than I care what a baker or landscaper thinks.


Beau June 9, 2018 at 12:35 pm

I agree which is why I argued for separating nationalism from sport.


Beau August 14, 2018 at 7:23 am

Here we go again. Another NFL season with an unnecessary controversy. (Two, actually, but I will leave the Not Your Mascot movement against using indigenous people as racist team mascots alone for the moment). Folks, let’s be clear: NFL owners (anyone) insisting the National Anthem (celebration of nationalism as a positive political concept) be played at sporting events is bringing/injecting their brand of politics into sports. We can end this false ‘jingoist initiated controversy’ very quickly by not playing the national anthem at public sporting events. Celebrate your political commitment to nationalism in the privacy of your home. If not, take credit for making public sports events a political venue that you started and support/tolerate/embrace others who bring their political causes to the same events. After all, you started it. Thus, you can end it.


Geoff Page August 14, 2018 at 10:26 am

Very well put, Beau. That and the insistence on saying the pledge of allegiance has always bothered me. Using the old foxhole simile, I would much prefer to have a guy who doesn’t care for the anthem or the pledge in a foxhole with me than the guy who does. The outward displays of patriotism are just that, displays, and nothing more.


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