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Both Sides Are Losing the NFL Culture War

Vice President Mike Pence must be in contention for a place in the NFL record books: shortest stay at a game by a public official. He earned that honor after cutting short his visit to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis because members of the San Francisco 49ers—the visiting team—knelt in protest during the national anthem.

Despite the vice president’s well-deserved reputation for sincerity, Pence’s ploy has the feel of a pre-planned political stunt [1]. After all, the 49ers were the first team to participate in these protests, under the leadership of since-defenestrated quarterback Colin Kaepernick, making a repeat nearly inevitable. President Trump was quick to claim credit [2] for Pence’s hasty exit, and he always keeps an eye on the ratings.

It’s easy to see why people of goodwill would a.) be offended by real or perceived disrespect for our country, as symbolized by the flag and the anthem, and b.) wish to use their platforms or positions of prominence to highlight real and perceived racial injustices, as exemplified by the high-profile deaths of black people via questionable encounters with the police.

But the ability to care about two issues simultaneously, while respecting the sincerely held viewpoints of our countrymen with radically different experiences, tends to get lost in culture war slogs. A complicated national conversation is thus reduced to a simplistic debate, kneel versus stand.


This framing plays to the short-term benefits of the combatants. Trump can grab headlines whenever he wants to by weighing in on the NFL protests, his trademark method of shifting out of unflattering news cycles, secure in the knowledge that he speaks for millions of Americans whose views are mostly unrepresented in popular culture and only defended timidly by more conventional political actors.

The protesters, for their part, are getting a great deal of media attention. They are being mentioned in the same sentence as Rosa Parks and other past civil-rights icons. It’s not just Kaepernick’s lonely crusade anymore.

But there is much less evidence that this fight is redounding to the benefit of either side’s long-term interests. Trump’s interventions have fanned the flames of these protests, which were already growing more common, rather than tamping them down. This is to be expected, as he is a deeply polarizing president with a job approval rating hovering around just 40 percent. He has never taken responsibility for engaging in racial politics that range from the mishandled (Charlottesville) to the malevolent (birtherism) and does not appear to understand the damage he has done to his own credibility on race.

Indeed, the latest Trump-Pence intercession came as the NFL seemed to be groping towards a compromise on how to protect player protests while at the same time maintaining a certain sense of decorum surrounding the national anthem. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones once knelt with his players before the anthem; he now says that if they don’t stand for the flag, they will sit on the bench. NFL chief Roger Goodell has reportedly sent around a memo [3] saying he’d prefer that the kneeling stops.

Similarly, the protests themselves seem to be actually increasing indifference and outright hostility to the causes they are intended to highlight, at least among the conservative white viewers who are presumably the target audience. Those NFL fans are at the very least changing the channel.

The counterargument to this is that civil-rights protests have never been popular [4]. It is true that we in retrospect exaggerate how unifying past demonstration were. Nevertheless, Parks refusing to surrender her seat on the bus or sit-ins at segregated lunch counters were more directly connected to the specific injustices they were protesting than wealthy athletes refusing to stand for the flag. What is the straight line on which we go from a defensive lineman taking a knee to Ferguson altering its police practices?

Instead both sides are perhaps unwittingly launching an attack on Americanism as a force that can transcend race—the protesters by, however indirectly or unintentionally, treating the American flag as a symbol of white supremacy and Trump by preaching a race-neutral Americanism [5] on the one hand while seeming to wink at white identity politics on the other.

Making American patriotism a form of conservative white identity politics will do more to mainstream white nationalism than any torch-wielding neo-Nazi ever could. Abandoning even the aspiration of the flag representing one nation and one people is a disaster for what both Trump and the protesters profess to believe.

Jim Antle is the Washington Examiner‘s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller and associate editor of the American Spectator. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?

29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "Both Sides Are Losing the NFL Culture War"

#1 Comment By M. Orban On October 10, 2017 @ 11:41 pm

How about stop playing the national anthem before sports events all together. It doesn’t belong there.

#2 Comment By tz On October 10, 2017 @ 11:49 pm

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. She didn’t chalk or otherwise deface the bus.

Pence tolerated Hamilton’s cast stopping to discuss things.

Disrespecting the anthem or flag is NOT an argument or discussion

MLKjr didn’t burn American Flags or otherwise disrespect symbols of the Country.

He also knew to write “letter from a Birmingham Jail” showing the moral authority.

“Whining from a millionaire athlete”, even if coherent and with correct spelling and grammar wouldn’t have gravitas. The apparently illiterate or incoherent kneeling during a symbol of our country’s unity while wearing a uniform where they crack down on memorials to murdered police? They should be terminated without any extreme prejudice.

#3 Comment By John Fargo On October 11, 2017 @ 1:00 am

You have to give the Tiny Fingered Vulgarian credit, he knows how to work the media. I quit watching the rich boys clubs in the NFL decades ago, but the picture of black athletes kneeling to protest racism while wearing Redskin uniforms broke my irony meter.

#4 Comment By polistra On October 11, 2017 @ 3:53 am

Birtherism isn’t malevolent, it’s just pointless partisan team-play.

The simple fact is that we don’t CHECK citizenship of candidates. McCain and Obama were equally dubious. Neither would have passed the citizenship check given to other government employees. George Romney, Mitt’s father, was born in Mexico to Mexican parents and moved to the US at the age of 5. Unquestionably ineligible but nobody bothered to ask.

When a “requirement” isn’t really required, it’s nothing more than a talking point.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 11, 2017 @ 5:04 am

I spoke to my sister yesterday. When we discussed voting, she said she voted on character, and I got the innuendo. Since I wanted to avoid the character discussion on Sec Clinton I simply noted I voted on policy. Unless there is really some grave issue, in my way of thinking the executive is a manager and I am going to look there first.

What I find odd is that on policy the current executive won the election, where policy connected with some cultural aspect as with immigration he won. Ad yet he appears to be abandoning the managerial positions and questions and attempting to leverage the legal and social question about justice where he wants to use the least standard faithful, respect for country as cloak as a lever about how white people “feel” about blacks.

It plays to the foundations of the founders. Should blacks be free or should we have a country. Over and over again white leverage some national unity on the back of blacks. Whether it’s embracing all things policing, in-spite of clear evidence that there are issues there as well as nearly in everything else — still. There seems to be an increasing number of black people who say,

“You’ve got it wrong. Justice is the call of the country and the purpose of the flag.”

The preamble of the Constitution, stating the purpose for the establishment of country calls for domestic tranquility kneeling seems a very peaceful act, so it causes no unrest, but points to what may be systemic injustices against citizens.

Respect for flag and country is none of the governments business, illegal immigration certainly is. National sovereignty certainly is. But based on polling data, the country would rather allow violations of sovereignty vie lax immigration policy before she supports over issues the government is tasked to do as is her purposes.

Hmmmmm . . . 1776, 1789, 1876 . . 1896 . . . to this day the country again wants unity over issues of fairness and is willing unfairly favorable to people here illegally.

This all sounds very familiar. I would like the players to stand as well, but they are entitled to their conscientious objections concerning issues.

As for Hollywood, taking the home of Mrs Simpson is all I need to know about, diversity, equality, conscience, fairness, integrity and sincerity on issues. Equating women’s lives and same relational marriage with that of the struggle of blacks’ issues and then proceed eat away at gains required for those citizens to embrace their rightful place in country.

What this president has helped accomplish is to strip bare where we are as a country. As for me, I remain faithful to the country and find abiding injustice intolerable. If I ever watch a game on TV or at home again, I think I will choose to sit as I find that a country that countenances murdering children in the womb, unconstitutional, offensive and the result of deep moral and legal compromise so a white woman wouldn’t be inconvenienced by her choice to avoid pregnancy.

Of course I am only assuming that people at home stand when the anthem is played. But then that is really none of my business.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 11, 2017 @ 5:07 am

I guess it’s a healthy sign that we are not dragging players off the field, beating them up and destroying their homes as experienced by the most notable protests against allegiance to country by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

#7 Comment By Clay On October 11, 2017 @ 6:53 am

Everyday we hear of American veterans in need as the federal government continues to fail their needs and deliver on promises that were made when we enlisted to serve this country. I can’t help but think how much better that money could have been spent last Sunday on veterans who really need the help over a silly photo op by the VP so Trump could rile his base. If that flag really represents the men and women who served this country, then lets take care of them first before stupid political stunts. There are too many veterans committing suicide everyday who aren’t being helped by VA to get them through the issues these wars placed in their lives.

#8 Comment By ControlE On October 11, 2017 @ 7:16 am

I agree with this 100%. I feel like all of the legitimacy the NFL players had was lost the second this became a “pissing” match with Trump. As soon as Trump started tweeting, whether they wanted it to or not, it became about standing up to him and not about the actual issue at hand.

Though I do feel like your last paragraph is a little bit behind; because this form of “patriotism” became part of the white, conservative political identity a very long time ago. Remember 2003, when being against the Iraq War somehow meant you were against the Troops, and that meant you weren’t a real American?

#9 Comment By Sean On October 11, 2017 @ 7:33 am

Want to defend Old Glory, the troops, the Republic? Condemn the display and veneration of the Confederate flag.

#10 Comment By bkh On October 11, 2017 @ 7:35 am

Let them take a knee and let those that boycott put a financial hurting on the NFL. What is more American than that? Good ol’ Roger Goodell is starting to crack because of another good old American characteristic – the love of money.

#11 Comment By Wilfred On October 11, 2017 @ 7:36 am

Skip the National Anthem altogether, and instead play Dixie.

That’ll bring ’em to their feet.

#12 Comment By Dan Green On October 11, 2017 @ 8:44 am

Will only be resolved if it affects the owners revenue stream. Advertisers only position will be if viewership drops, they will have to bail.

#13 Comment By Marilyn Hallowell On October 11, 2017 @ 9:01 am

I have never perceived that anyone is treating the US flag as a symbol of White Supremacy. I see it, and therefore project that perception on others, as a symbol of the our nation and its constitution. Kneeling , taking a knee, has always been seen as a posture of respect. Your assessment appears bias only in that the focus is on what they are not doing-should be doing, rather then on what they are doing. The rest of your points are spot on.

#14 Comment By Sean On October 11, 2017 @ 9:38 am

Flying the Confederate flag is way more insulting to Old Glory and the troops than “taking a knee”.

#15 Comment By David Smith On October 11, 2017 @ 11:41 am

The other question is why does there have to be an overt demonstration of patriotism at a football game? What does the one have to do with the other? We don’t have national anthems before movies or concerts, why football games?

#16 Comment By Ready for the Apocalypse On October 11, 2017 @ 11:45 am

Pass the popcorn! If this whole mess gets American couch potatoes to finally give up on the debilitating opiate that is “sportsball,” it will have done a world of good.

There’s a better world outside of “the big game.” Take up a hobby, learn a skill, play a sport yourself, re-connect to your community.

#17 Comment By Buckeye Conservative On October 11, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

From what I’ve seen the majority, a large majority, of Americans are against NFL players using a sporting event to promulgate their political views. Let’s remember there is controversy about the activities of many of these police incidents that are claimed to be police racism – – especially the Ferguson shooting that really started the BLM terrorism. The NFL players are still giving their opinion – no a fact. Let them protest somewhere else. As someone wrote that it is the same as your restaurant server including their political statements along with the “specials of the day” at your favorite restaurant. No tip for that one.

#18 Comment By TM On October 11, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

Garbage from an obvious elite sympathizer. The NFL and Antifa is getting its butt handed to it. There is no dialogue after disrespecting America and its flag. Maybe you elites will do a little homework next time because you missed an obvious reality.

#19 Comment By KingP On October 11, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

Key points ignored or at least rarely acknowledged amidst the anguish over kneeling athletes.

– this entire affair smells of a pre-planned publicity stunt, or at least a masterstroke of Orwellian distraction. Until Trump’s bizarre display, “kneeling” was at best a fading issue, centered on a single guy now deprived of his primary venue of protest. We are now embroiled in a national slapfight largely instigated by a single individual in the service of his own amusement (by his own admission, all the “anger” is quite exciting). Whatever your ideology, this is disturbing.

– Those usually fond of invoking the attitudes of the founding fathers are unusually silent on the revolutionary distaste for symbols, icons, lordly personages and the reverence thereof. I would assume that this is because careful consideration of the coldly secular enlightenment philosophies that influence our system of government is a confusing and terrifying activity for the average idealogue.

– Actual legal precedent is on the side of the dissenters. W.V. bd. of Ed. v. Barnette and Sherbert v. Berner would seem to guarantee a legal win for any fired NFLer. These decisions should also enlighten both the “private company/gotta stand” and “tax dollars for the stadium/gotta stand” crowds.

#20 Comment By sherparick On October 11, 2017 @ 1:10 pm

I disagree that Trump putting down the black NFL players and bullying the owners to sanction them for their protest is any kind of disaster for Trump. After all his and Bannon’s goal is to head a white Nationalist party and to put all “others” in their place. It keeps the disaster of Puerto Rico out of the head lines, at least gives Fox something to talk about then the question of whether the President is a moron which is the other major news besides the fact that liberals took donations from the icky Weinstein character (finally, karma comes to the guy who stole the Oscar from “Saving Private Ryan.”

#21 Comment By Nelson On October 11, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

Similarly, the protests themselves seem to be actually increasing indifference and outright hostility to the causes they are intended to highlight, at least among the conservative white viewers who are presumably the target audience.

You speak as if conservative white viewers weren’t already indifferent towards police mistreatment of persons if color before the protests. This is not the time for equivalency. Hurt feelings about the flag is nothing like the police being judge jury and executioner because they “felt scared” of an unarmed black person.

#22 Comment By KD On October 11, 2017 @ 3:10 pm

Kaepernick started the Pledge protests, and from what I can see, Trump is winning the political battle.

Ratings are tanking, advertisers are nervous, and team owners–no matter how stupid and blind they have been so far–are starting to realize they are pissing away millions of dollars.

As far as a post-racial “Americanism” that transcends racial differences, I’m just not seeing too many actual Americans that are interested in such a project, outside of cisheteronormative white male Conservative, Inc. think tanks and echo chambers. Look at the Leftist responses to Lilla’s books!

#23 Comment By MEOW On October 11, 2017 @ 5:09 pm

The invisible hand will decide this issue. Pro ball is like watching Chevron play Shell. Less likely to induce brand loyalty. College ball has loyalties deeply grounded in our youth. People will grow tired of watching millionaires take their time at paying entertainment events to show how poorly they have been treated. I do respect their right to demonstrate and to speak their piece. I also appreciate the race struggles that sadly many have endured. Like watching a Hollywood (less in foreign films) movie where the bad guy is wearing an all too obvious Christian cross. The entertainment value is greatly discounted and if it is too obvious, I walk out and request my money back. I came to be entertained not to attend a political rally. Freedom of Speech is so sacred. This subject is a toughie. Hollywood not so much.

#24 Comment By Ken T On October 11, 2017 @ 5:29 pm

I can’t help wondering how many of the people getting so hot and bothered about these NFL players “disrespecting” the flag are themselves people who display the Confederate flag. You can’t get much more disrespectful than that.

#25 Comment By Laird Bean On October 12, 2017 @ 12:42 am

The polarizing that has been happening has and is the fault of the protesters who timed their protests in such a way as to stir the anger of average Americans! Trump’s response was both justified and welcome to these same Americans!
This website should just drop the facade of conservatism and let their name reflect their true political and ideological views!

#26 Comment By Dan Green On October 12, 2017 @ 9:49 am

Money will solve this. By that I mean if owners revenue stream is effected one way or the other, or players incomes are voided for not abiding by some rules, rules we know nothing about. One or the other will change their tune.

#27 Comment By Mia On October 12, 2017 @ 7:32 pm

“But the ability to care about two issues simultaneously, while respecting the sincerely held viewpoints of our countrymen with radically different experiences, tends to get lost in culture war slogs. A complicated national conversation is thus reduced to a simplistic debate, kneel versus stand.”

Spare me the crap about “respecting our sincerely held viewpoints of our countrymen,” because I have been dealing with my own police brutality case for over twenty years as a white woman, and I know what the real score is on this, let me tell you. There has NEVER been a time where respect was shown for my experiences and opinions on the topic in my own community. No, I have been shamed into silence and told to put up and shut up even though it was wildly illegal and shocking what was done to me. (Rod Dreher has my official paperwork which I sent him privately, so don’t think I’m some kind of leftist sock puppet.) I’ve had it with the posturing and lies about how goody-goody our community is about this whole thing. I’ve had it with the unhinged, supposedly patriotic ranting of some on the conservative channels who can’t seem to understand that maybe being concerned about abuse of power and dead children in the street could be more important than some ideological position or a piece of cloth. Do you think people in my position don’t see what you’re really about?

Back then we had a high-profile black victim connected to the NFL only months before my own case happened, so yes, it may actually be more personal for them too than you assume. I have always been haunted by the things people in my own community have said to me regarding that man’s death, often not realizing I was also a victim in some situations and assuming I must just believe the same things they do. I usually mention him when I write people behind the scenes explaining my case, too, for that very reason. So you can’t convince me of the righteousness of the people complaining about the NFL protests. If there is fallout against Colin Kaepernick for this, I will be the first to send him a thank you card; I’ve done it before over the years when prominent people have stood up on issues relating to my case and gotten totally trashed over it in the media. (And who the he** cares what his mother thinks of his protest? We kneel in church for Mass to show respect at particular parts, so the kneelers look far better than the people standing anyway.)

Let me break it down for you, okay? The only reason we’re talking about police brutality at all is because of BLM and Kaepernick’s protests. Yeah, the NAACP and others have protested peacefully in cities over the decades on this issue, but do you know the names and dates? Why? Even as peaceful as they were, the leaders were still trashed and people still felt it was out of line. Good people whom I admire and whom I agreed with who still get hit pieces written about them. The riots and outrageous protests like the NFL are what get the attention of people. But our community is very good at changing the subject and generating all of this faux outrage. I recall being at an event when there was a peaceful BLM protest in our city, where the two people in line in front of me were talking about it and expressed irritation that anyone would protest at all. Because I am part of their community, they looked at me expectantly to nod and smile in agreement, but I didn’t, and that really killed the mood. So no, it’s not because people aren’t protesting in the right way or at the right time or peacefully enough. They just want everyone to shut up about it. Too many people make money off of things the way they are to allow any real change to the justice system. We’ve never really had a national debate about it at all, let alone this idea that it has become a “simplistic debate.” It hasn’t.

#28 Comment By David Skerry On October 12, 2017 @ 7:55 pm

As we know, Trump has militarized his administration with Generals and other high ranking military officers.The idea of a “culture war” is becoming ever more a reality in the form of a civil war.The fate of our Republic is likely to end up in the hands of the Generals who understand our Constitutional government much better than Trump.Given the hideous conduct of foreign affairs by Trump, it just could be in the best interests of our Country that a peaceful military coup take place with Trump and company permitted to take refuge in a place of his choosing and Pence sworn in to the Office. We don’t have a parliamentary system to solve our pressing governmental problems which will almost certainly lead to nuclear war.Congress has insufficient time to act via the Constitutional impeachment route.Pence is no bargain but he better understands foreign relations and the world would be a safer place for the next 3 years.Trump is a clear and present danger to world peace and to civil tranquility.While I don’t advocate the overthrow of our government by force and violence I do advocate the replacement of a loud mouth,no-nothing ,egotist who is perilously endangering the American public and humanity.

#29 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 15, 2017 @ 9:06 am

“.The fate of our Republic is likely to end up in the hands of the Generals who understand our Constitutional government much better than Trump.Given the hideous conduct of foreign affairs by Trump, it just could be in the best interests of our Country that a peaceful military coup take place with Trump and company permitted to take refuge in a place of his choosing and Pence sworn in to the Office.”

While it is an intriguing notion —- in my view, there’s absolutely no reason to that the US should experience a military coupe. We have a constitutional process by which we transition to a new executive should the need arise. I appreciate and respect VP Pence. But as I a recall his foreign policy platform was far more aggressive, more in line with Sec Clinton and company — aggressively expansionist. His domestic policy was that included another form of amnesty on the issue of immigration.

Pres Trump’s foreign policy, despite some rhetoric is far less aggressive than his predecessors. Previous presidents have been far more stark in their warnings to and about foreign states. Curious why the liberal mind leans so heavily on the force when they don’t get their way and no law has been broken.