On Thursday afternoon, an AP report spilled the beans on the Miami Dolphins’ plan to suspend players in their employ who opt to kneel during the national anthem for up to four games. In case you aren’t familiar, in 2016 Colin Kaepernick, a former all-star quarterback who still projects as a useful National Football League player and an excellent upside acquisition, kneeled for the anthem as a silent protest against police violence inflicted on people of color in America. Other players followed suit here and there, making a quiet and dignified statement about racial discrimination during a song that quite literally represents America.
People lost their shit over this. Especially Donald J. Trump, somehow our current president, who said the players who did this should be cut immediately. It was the ultimate culture-war issue for a dude whose entire campaign was based on racially tinged, easily exploitable grievance politics.
Anyway, the NFL did an insanely bad job of dealing with this, soup to nuts. It was probably affecting its ratings, but there was nothing in the league’s bylaws that addressed protest during the anthem whatsoever, so for a whole year the league’s main position was, “Uhh please don’t do that,” without anything in its arbitrational toolkit to actually make it stop happening. Culture warriors like Trump continued to make the pancakes by performatively leaning on Commissioner Roger Goodell to do something, knowing full the fuck well that there wasn’t much they could do about it, drafting paychecks and clicks off the league office’s misery without shifting anything in any particular direction whatsoever.
Most sports commissioners are—or have been—lawyers. Adam Silver, David Stern, Paul Tagliabue, Rob Manfred, one after another, nearly all of them have passed a bar exam at some point in their lives. For whatever someone could say about the profession, you have to admire one thing about a lawyer: They are intimately familiar with the inner workings of rules, of what can and can’t happen under the law or civil agreements. And yes, they most certainly serve at the pleasure of team ownership, but they also make pains to serve, by their very natures as professionals, the letter of the collective-bargaining agreements that they’ve drafted with the player unions they work with.
Roger Goodell, one of the most loathed men in America no matter what side of the aisle you find yourself on—and a dude who is somehow in line for an extension—is not a lawyer. He is a marketing and public-relations professional who has worked for the league his entire adult life. This truth bears out in every decision the NFL under his direction has made: They have operated purely on the logic of generating the least damaging PR for the league, and outside of anything resembling a reasonable application of rules. Like his peers in America’s other professional sports leagues, he serves at the pleasure of ownership, but he has no second set of instincts honed by a life in a profession that considers rules of the upmost importance.
And so, the NFL makes decisions regarding player punishment willy-nilly, guessing what the public thinks the consequences for some act or another should be, and then taking heat or praise depending on how well they guessed. Ray Rice was charged with second-degree assault, but remained unsuspended until a horrifying video of him punching his fiancée surfaced and forced Goodell’s hand. The suspension was overturned in court because it didn’t adhere to the league’s collective-bargaining agreement, which centered more on taking every last penny the league could out of the players’ pockets and less with instituting codes of conduct to discourage their players from committing heinous acts off the field.
Earlier this year, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, a world-class creep by any standard, received a measly three-game suspension—one less than the Dolphins are proposing for protesting the anthem—for groping an Uber driver, the latest incident in a lifetime of treating women poorly. Gregg Williams was the ringleader of a scheme that encouraged players to injure opponents (he is currently the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns). Richie Incognito engaged in a campaign of harassment against his Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin, using slurs and threatening his mother, ruining Martin’s career, and washing him out of the league. He was suspended for three months, and has continued working as an offensive guard for several seasons after he returned.
For the last few months or so, the league and the players’ union have been working to bang out an agreement about anthem protests that will be amicable to both sides, and they released a statement amid this Dolphins leak disavowing Miami’s fining program, thus insinuating that they’re doing everything they can to scratch out some mutually agreeable rule on the matter. But in that leak, we see ownership’s position stated loud and clear for anyone who can read it: They want it to stop immediately and they want to be able to fine anyone who does it, because the president constantly roasting them on TV for being weak on “anti-patriotism” is a PR disaster for a league that collects problems like barnacles.
But you don’t need to look even that far to see where the NFL’s priorities are in this manner. Kaepernick has been, for all intents and purposes, blackballed by the league—one of the best quarterbacks in the world, a dude who can do the most important job on a football field as well as only a handful of people, exiled from professional play altogether on account of his political activities. Kaep is pursuing a collusion case against the league, but it doesn’t take a verdict to see that the NFL has ruled that his political opinions and how he expresses them are more harmful to business than groping women, getting charged with assault, harassing teammates or paying your players to injure people. I guess that stuff just don’t move the needle like a blowhard president.