WASHINGTON — Anyone following football on Sunday was treated to a spectacle, unlike anything the NFL has ever produced–and it had nothing to do with unexpected results on the scoreboard.
Bigger than the Super Bowl, faster than the start of free agency, and with more angles than the draft, the NFL league offices, players, teams and personnel joined forces with broadcast partners to provide a unified, singular response to President Donald Trump’s criticisms of professional football.
Trump’s comments, which hit the news cycle on Friday, raged against those who kneel during the National Anthem, referring to protesting players as SOB’s. He further accused NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell of being weak on what he considered to be unpatriotic players.
Then he offered the nuclear option: boycotting the NFL until owners act against players.
In the 48 hours that followed, the NFL achieved some level of response from all 28 teams that were in action this week, produced a commercial that aired on Sunday Night Football, and turned broadcast partners loose to discuss the protests and air comments, even profane ones, from players in response to Trump.
This is truly unprecedented for the NFL, which had every reason to avoid the topic of protests before now. In July, J.D. Power asked more than 9,200 people why they stopped watching football in 2016, and the No. 1 answer was the protests. Why focus on what makes the customers unhappy?
Because it is also the topic that puts the NFL in the boycott crosshairs. So, the NFL’s playbook changed overnight.
First came Goodell’s response, laying the groundwork for an image of solidarity:
Next came the teams and owners, which started across the pond in London with the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars. Fans tuning in via streaming services were greeted by images of Jags owner Shahid Khan locking arms in solidarity with players on the sideline during the National Anthem, in a way that literally never happens:
Team owners have free reign of the stadium but typically spend the pregame and in-game time in the owners’ suites, located high above the field. This is not symbolic location–just a matter of fact.
The show of solidarity continued throughout the day, with eerily similar images and taglines coming out of many team Twitter accounts, including @Redskins:
In case you missed any, the NFL compiled a highlight reel called “NFL Players, Owners, & Coaches Showing Unity During National Anthem | Week 3,” which can be seen here:
It’s worth noting that three NFL teams (Steelers, Seahawks and Titans) did not take the field for the National Anthem, choosing instead to shield players in the tunnel and allow them to act as they saw fit without public scrutiny.
The NFL has no rules directly pertaining to the observance of the National Anthem, saying only in Rule 4, Section 2, Article 1:
Both teams must be on the field to kick off at the scheduled time for the start of each half. Prior to the start of the game, both teams are required to appear on the field at least 10 minutes prior to the scheduled kickoff in order to ensure sufficient time for proper warm-up. Designated members of the officiating crew must notify both head coaches personally of the scheduled time for kickoff prior to the start of each half.
It is unclear if Pittsburgh, Seattle or Tennessee were not compliant with that rule, but none of the teams were penalized.
The next step in the NFL’s coordinated playbook was to release statements in support of the league and newly-reinforced solidarity between players and owners. These are just a few of the statements:
The Redskins also offered a statement, one of several that did not directly reference President Trump or his comments, but did orbit the topic of unity and the NFL as a unifying force:
Then, during Sunday Night Football, the league released this video on NBC’s broadcast, further pushing the “unity” message:
It’s difficult to know how much influence the NFL has over the content shared by its broadcast partners, but there was a noticeable upswing in protest and solidarity discussions on CBS, FOX, NBC and the NFL Network.
Once again, analysts focused on discussing the elements of unity but did little to downplay the heated, frequently profane comments expressed to the media by players and coaches from around the league. Here are a few of those comments that were highlighted on NBC before the Redskins-Raiders game:
Players and coaches are typically fined thousands of dollars for using profanity in postgame comments to the media, but it will be interesting to see if that applies to players who spoke in defense of the NFL’s coordinated defense of the league.
With all of this taken into account, it’s impossible to imagine that the league was not working closely with teams and the NFL Players’ Association to ensure a unanimous response. But even so, Liz Clarke and Abby Phillip of the Washington Post characterized the movement as some sort of strange coincidence (emphasis added):
The silent rebuke to the president, determined independently by each of the 28 NFL teams in action Sunday, represented an unprecedented collective action and show of solidarity among players who battle against one another 16 weeks, some more, each season.
That seems unlikely. But this is probably just the beginning of this discussion.