The NFL kneeling thing is not a free speech issue. The NFL is a money making operation. It has to have fans to make money. If fans start turning off the TV and stop coming to stadiums the NFL has a big problem. And that is exactly what started happening last year.
Fans felt like the kneeling players weren’t really protesting “police violence” or whatever. There was the sense that these players were really giving the finger first to the president (OK I can understand that) but also to the NFL fans who like the president. So fans gave the finger back. The league knew that if the fans continued to be offended they might never return. (I know some people in this camp.) So the NFL did what made sense.
Basically the fans went on strike and the fans won.
While it’s natural to try to fit this story into some of the larger culture wars going on in the country, this is really just a simple business calculation. At the end of the day the NFL is not in the business of promoting patriotism, or providing a venue for social causes, or even really about the athletes who play in the league. It’s all about getting the attention of fans, and the NFL clearly thinks most of them don’t want protests during the national anthem. This also means that one key point has been ignored in this whole debate, it isn’t only in the interests of league owners to not offend fans – it’s in obvious long-term interest of players too.
After all, if the same athletes were making the same plays in front of the same sized audience that watches the NHL, the value of each individual player would be significantly less than it is today. Being a great athlete is not an inherently profitable skill, there are plenty of great athletes who can’t make a million dollars a year taking advantage of their specific abilities. It’s the mass appeal of specific sports that allows individuals like LeBron James, Bryce Harper, and Antonio Brown become very wealthy individuals. In the case of the NFL, polling showed that over 60% of NFL fans watched fewer NFL games due to the player protests. If declining NFL ratings remain a constant, and it impacts future TV deals, then players in 2028 may be worse off than players in 2018.
Seriously, how are these players going to feel when they are kneeling in the unemployment line?