The NFL Anthem Controversy Is Bad Business

In March of 1996 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a Denver Nuggets guard, refused to stand for the national anthem before his team’s NBA game. League reprisal was swift, Rauf was suspended indefinitely and fined nearly $32,000, the amount he was paid per game. Abdul-Rauf, who had played college basketball at LSU as Chris Jackson before converting to Islam and changing his name, refused to stand because he believed the American flag was a symbol of oppression and the United States had a long history of tyranny.

Abdul-Rauf’s refusal to stand for the national anthem and his political protest violated league anthem rules which stated: “Players, coaches, and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.”

Rather than allow Abdul-Rauf to continue his protest, NBA commissioner David Stern acted swiftly, suspending Abdul-Rauf and demanding that he stand before he would be allowed to return to play in the league. Facing an indefinite suspension and with league commissioner David Stern threatening to fine Abdul-Rauf until he agreed to stand for the anthem, Abdul-Rauf relented and the protest ended.

Having created a controversy that was bad for business, Abdul-Rauf found muted interest for his skills and saw his career come to a close soon after. He is not considered a hero by anyone. In fact, most people have no idea this story ever happened. That’s because David Stern immediately saw the threat to the NBA’s business posed by Abdul-Rauf’s anthem protest and acted quickly to end it.

Twenty years later the NFL faced an almost identical problem. Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem and said this to justify his protest: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

While the media has portrayed Kaepernick’s protest as without precedent, the reality is it’s almost identical to what Abdul-Rauf did in 1996. The only difference is how the leagues responded. David Stern did what Roger Goodell should have done, he fined and suspended Abdul-Rauf and the story vanished.

Instead of taking action against Kaepernick and hoping the protest would die of its own volition, the NFL did nothing to Kaepernick. As a result the NFL is now in the middle of its third straight year of dealing with the protest, league ratings have plummeted 20%, and television partners are losing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yet the NFL has still tried to avoid offending anyone by implementing a new anthem policy which is far less stringent than the NBA’s policy — requiring players and coaches to stand for the anthem on the field or to remain in the locker room if they don’t want to stand for the anthem. If players fail to comply with the policy then the team will be fined. Meaning that unlike Abdul-Rauf no player has faced a fine or a suspension for any political protest in the NFL. Despite the fact that the NFL has been more lenient for on-field political statements during the anthem than the NBA was, the far left wing sports media has praised the NBA to the high heavens and castigated the NFL.

The most ridiculous aspect of this coverage came yesterday when Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr ripped the NFL’s new anthem policy saying as follows: “Typical of the NFL. Appealing to their fanbase. Basically just trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism. Idiotic.”

We’ve truly reached an upside down world when a business appealing to its fanbase is considered to be a bad thing.

But when I read Kerr’s quote that’s when it hit me, what the anthem controversy is really about isn’t the first amendment or protests or politics at all, it’s about people who run businesses and people who don’t run businesses, the difference between people who understand how capitalism works and those who don’t.

Regardless of what your political beliefs are this is an incontrovertible truth: mixing sports and politics is bad for the business of sports.

Period.

That’s the underlying motivation behind how the NBA responded to Abdul-Rauf and how the NFL should have responded to Colin Kaepernick. NFL owners, rightfully, are concerned that their viewership has declined 20% in the past two years. And while they initially blamed interest in the 2016 presidential election or cord shaving or Netflix or the bevy of entertainment options, there is now abundant evidence that other sports ratings haven’t been impacted this year by any of these things. College football playoff ratings were up this year while NFL playoff ratings were down double digits. The NBA and NHL playoff ratings are up this year too. So were early rounds of the NCAA tournament. All of these sports face the same challenges when it comes to snagging viewership as the NFL, we all have far more entertainment options than we’ve ever had before.

Yet those sports are all seeing ratings increases and the NFL is going down.

So why is the NFL down? And why, in particular, after years of increasing ratings, did the NFL’s ratings abruptly begin a precipitous decline at the exact moment that Colin Kaepernick began his protest? I understand there are many who still disagree with me, but I believe the vast majority of the reason the NFL’s audience has declined is because the vast majority of NFL fans want to watch football without politics.

I believe there are tens of millions of sports fans in this country who have stopped watching as much NFL as they used to over the protest.

And those people leaving the NFL viewing market are having a crushing impact on the league’s television partners.

The NFL ratings being down 20% over the past two years are producing significant economic consequences. In particular, the NFL’s TV partners at Fox, ESPN, CBS, and NBC collectively missed their budgets due to NFL ratings declines by over $600 million last year. The impact of those missed budgets on these networks is substantial, it means advertisers have to receive hundreds of millions of “free” advertisements to make up for the audiences they didn’t receive based on plummeting viewership.

So far players and to a lesser extent owners have been somewhat inoculated from the protest’s economic impact, but the TV networks are the canaries in the coal mines; they are telling the league about the negative impact occurring on their business. And they have a succinct message for the NFL: “Fix this.”

Players, who think like most people in America do, as employees not as owners, have mostly forgotten where their salaries come from. Players are paid because fans watch them play football. And, significantly, the fewer fans who watch you play, the less money you make. This should be straight forward, but because league revenues are baked into existing multi-year agreements, players either don’t realize this or have forgotten this fact. That is, they don’t see an immediate impact from a decline in NFL interest. Imagine, for instance, how much different the response to politics in sports would be if NFL players, instead of the TV networks, had made hundreds of millions less in their paychecks than they anticipated.

How many players do you think would be defending Colin Kaepernick and the other kneeling players if they made a million dollars less than their contracts expected them to? I bet it would be many less. But the lack of direct economic impact produces a false reality, one that doesn’t comprehend the negative sporting impact of mixing politics and football.

That’s how Tennessee Titan Delanie Walker, when asked about fans being upset about the Titans not coming out for the national anthem last year, can say this, “And the fans that don’t want to come to the game? I mean, OK. Bye. I mean, if you feel that’s something, we’re disrespecting you, don’t come to the game. You don’t have to. No one’s telling you to come to the game. It’s your freedom of choice to do that.”

Titan cornerback Logan Ryan followed up by saying: “If they don’t want to watch, that’s their choice. That’s perfect.”

Put this in any other context and you realize how ridiculous this sounds. Imagine if, for instance, Cracker Barrel came out against flying flags outside their restaurants and suddenly 20% fewer people came to the restaurants. Can you imagine any Cracker Barrel employee giving these quotes?

Yet these quotes are reflective of what many players are saying and they blow my mind. Do players not understand that they receive 47% of all league revenue? Fans pay their salaries. When you tell a fan who is paying your salary not to come to the game or it’s perfect if you don’t want to watch the games, that’s insane to me. The only reason you make the salaries you do is because fans care about your games.

When you encourage these fans to leave, you are taking money out of your pocket. You just don’t see it because revenues aren’t paid out to players on a yearly basis. But the owners and league executives, the people running the league’s business, see this and that’s why they are taking action here. They have direct phone calls with the TV executives who are telling them, “Hey, we’re losing hundreds of millions of dollars that we need to make in order to pay you billions of dollars to air your games. Our margins are slim on these games and they’re predicated on advertising rates. If we make less money then we aren’t going to be able to pay you as much for TV rights in the future.”

That’s a simple economic reality that I don’t see anyone else acknowledging.

Pro athletes have gotten used to the idea that salaries only go up. That every year they negotiate to sign a new collective bargaining agreement that the pie of available money is going to be larger. But this isn’t guaranteed. The money could go down. That’s a basic principle of business, if you alienate your customer base then eventually that hurts your bottom line. If you tell someone consuming your product to leave and you don’t replace them with someone else, then eventually your business stagnates and dies.

If my bosses at Fox Sports Radio came to me and said, “Hey, your ratings are down 20% over last year,” I’d be terrified. Because that would lead to decreased revenue, just like with the NFL. The same would be true if I looked at the data on my podcasts, Periscopes, Facebooks, and the website and saw I’d lost 20% of my following. Hell, if I lost 20% of my Twitter followers, I’d be terrified too.

Because, just like the NFL, my paycheck is directly connected to my audience.

If I lost 20% of my audience, I’d immediately think, “What have I done wrong and what do I need to do better to bring those people back?”

That’s because I think like a businessman. I own my content and I want my audience to be as wide as possible. The bigger my audience is, the more successful I am, that’s the scoreboard for what I do. And for most of you reading this right now, that’s your scoreboard too.

If the companies you work for — or own — lost 20% of their audience over the past two years, you’d be having an all hands on deck meeting to figure out what was going wrong and how to fix it. The fact that so many media and fans don’t understand this is a testament to how few people in this country think like owners. Most of you think like employees.

And employees often make bad decisions, that’s often why they’re employees and not owners.

The NFL is thinking like a business when it comes to the anthem controversy. Just like the NBA did. And we don’t even need to analyze the first amendment issues at play here for protests — hint, there are none, the NFL teams are private businesses — or debate whether athletes should stick to sports or not. Because we have tangible evidence to answer those questions — mixing football and politics is bad for the NFL’s business.

Period.

Given the fact that they share revenues that means it is bad for both the owners and the players.

And while some of you are jumping up and down on social media saying, “The NBA is political and it isn’t hurting their business!” that’s not necessarily true. First, no NBA player has kneeled during the anthem since 1996, when the league suspended and fined the player who did so, and second, the NBA’s business is a pinprick of the NFL’s business — no NBA playoff game has outrated the pro bowl or the draft so far this year and no NBA playoff game has beaten any Thursday or Monday night regular season NFL game either — and their audience is different too. The NBA’s audience, which is more of a niche, may be more willing to accept politics mixed with basketball than the NFL’s is willing to accept politics mixed with football. But it’s also possible that the NBA, whose ratings are up a bit this year, would have been up even more if Greg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and LeBron James weren’t spouting off about politics all the time. In other words, it’s possible the NBA is hurting itself by mixing sports and politics too, but that the strength of the draw from LeBron and the Warriors is enough to overcome those headwinds.

But I tend to think this is more likely a question of when and where speech occurs. If you want to hop on social media and fire off your opinion on the police or global warming or do the same thing in a post-game press conference, fans can choose to ignore you. If you kneel on the football field just as the game is beginning and the television cameras show you doing this, then it’s harder to ignore.

Think of it this way, many actors and actresses are political, but Iron Man isn’t taking a knee just as the movie begins in the theater.

That’s why the question I would ask players is this, are the political beliefs of some of your colleagues — which you may or may not share — so important that you’re willing to have fewer fans and make less money? Because politics, like religion, tends to divide much more than it unites. Furthermore, while your social media feed may convince you otherwise, most fans don’t care about your political opinions at all. LeBron James is wildly popular in Ohio. Just a few months after he brought an NBA title to Cleveland, he campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the state of Ohio. Guess what happened? Donald Trump kicked Hillary Clinton’s ass in the state of Ohio.

Do you know why?

Because Republicans watch basketball too.

And those Republicans may well love rooting for you in football or basketball, but they aren’t following your political opinions. Worse, in these highly partisan times, they may choose not to watch your games at all. That’s why my question for everyone out there is this, if your business can succeed without getting involved in politics at all, why would you ever get involved in politics at all?

Because no matter which side of politics you pick, you alienate half the public.

The NFL isn’t anti what Colin Kaepernick is saying, it’s anti being political at all.

That makes perfect business sense in 2018, just like it made perfect business sense in 1996 when the NBA did the same exact thing.

The fact that I’m the only person saying or writing this shows you how lost we really are today.

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