The NFL has been the least impacted of all the pro sports leagues by the coronavirus. NFL free agency, the NFL Draft, even a new CBA, all went off without a hitch even amid the pandemic shutdowns that capsized other leagues. As a result the league appeared poised to roll into TV contract negotiations in sterling shape.
Then last week happened.
Drew Brees shared his opinion on standing for the anthem, other NFL athletes fired back at him, Brees reversed course, the president weighed in, Brees sniped back at the president, Roger Goodell issued a supportive protest statement and then last night the president fired off a new Tweet criticizing Goodell over his anthem policy.
The NFL stands on the precipice of yet another cycle of anthem related controversy. Rather than get into the anthem debate — you can read my most recent book if you’re interested in all my anthem opinions — let’s start with an important fact: NFL ratings tanked when the anthem controversy existed in 2016 and 2017, sinking 19% over those two years. As a result of those tanked rankings NFL TV partners lost hundreds of millions of dollars carrying the league’s games over those two seasons.
Regardless of your own position on the anthem this much is clear: being focused on anthem controversies is bad for the NFL’s business. Here’s a larger point as well, virtually no one in this country agrees with police killing innocent people. That is, this isn’t a controversial opinion, it’s like being opposed to cancer or kidnappings. There’s no one advocating in favor of more police murders, everyone agrees it’s wrong.
What’s controversial is the method of protest — kneeling during the anthem — not what is being protested.
But with the anthem controversy eliminated in 2018 and 2019, ratings came roaring back, setting the NFL in a great spot for new TV negotiations.
So how does the NFL solve this issue without losing audience anew? I’ve got an idea that I’ve humbly labeled the Travis Compromise, but before we get to that it’s important to consider all the stakeholders involved in this situation, along with their primary motivations.
So far as I can see there are six different major stakeholders here.
Let’s consider them along with their primary motives. (I’ve numbered these for ease of following the argument, not based on the order in which I think they are important.)
1. NFL Owners
Primary motive: making money and winning games
Look, we can make this more complicated than it needs to be — and I’m sure some NFL owners care about issues other than making money and winning games — but the primary reason you own an NFL team is to make money and win games. Sure, there are additional motivations — some owners like the fame, attention, and opportunity to influence their communities — but most owners, at their essence, want to make money and win games, that’s their ultimate goal and primary motivation.
We know that people like football so the only way the NFL doesn’t make as much money as possible money is by alienating their fan base. How do you alienate your fan base? By consistently losing games on the field or by causing fans not to watch with off the field related decisions.
This isn’t complicated, making political statements during NFL games isn’t good for business.
So NFL owners are likely to favor any decision that makes them more money, regardless of the politics involved.
2. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
Primary motive: make money while avoiding controversy
This explains the commissioner’s video on Friday night: Goodell is trying to put out the anthem controversy fire in the middle of contract negotiations for new TV deals.
Remember, this situation threatens to blow up at the worst time — right as NFL owners are prepared to sign multi-billion dollar contract deals.
So how does Goodell handle this situation? By telling the owners and the TV executives that he’s got this covered. The commissioner wants to make as much money for his owners as possible while avoiding all (off field) controversy. (On field controversy is good for business).
By endorsing the player protest, Goodell believes he limits the potential fall out and controversy. I’m actually intrigued by this idea — protesting is “cool” to many because it’s a counter-culture statement that old white guys don’t endorse. That’s what Colin Kaepernick represents to Nike, a repudiation of the governing class by the younger generation. A guy like Kaepernick gives the illusion of rebellion and an embrace of the counter culture to a major company like Nike, which is the least rebellious business imaginable.
But here’s the thing: as soon as something becomes popular enough to have mass appeal big business takes it over. (Which then leads to something new being part of the counterculture). It’s a story as old as time.
Think about it, social media is basically a race for kids to leave wherever their parents show up. Facebook was great until mom and dad got accounts. Then came Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, you name it, when the old people show up on social networks, kids flee to something new.
So what would happen if Roger Goodell endorsed kneeling? Wouldn’t that potentially make protesting so uncool that people on social media were less interested in doing it? They might even have to find new causes.
In other words, when the mainstream embraces your position — and old white guys in positions of power in the NFL like Roger Goodell are squarely in the mainstream — you’re not really rebels on the fringes of society any longer, you’re just another part of the American capitalistic experience.
That can be good because it means you have a seat at the political table and can allow you to pursue changes you sought, but it also kills the counter culture, rebel vibe that made your protest popular with some in the first place. The reason why a protest is powerful is because some people don’t want you to do it. Once no one cares if you do it — hell, once everyone is doing it — the protest is basically over.
Think of it like the peace sign.
Hippies made peace signs a major part of their counter-culture movement in the 1960’s. The peace sign — along with long hair — made people who opposed the hippies furuious. But now people throw up the peace sign all the time and it really doesn’t have much power. It’s been subsumed by larger culture, it’s still an expression, but no one really cares very much when they see it.
And it certainly doesn’t tell us something profound about the person involved.
Now that position may be too risky for Goodell to completely endorse, but it’s certainly intriguing to think about.
3. TV networks
Primary motive: making money
The TV networks lost hundreds of millions of dollars when fans turned off games and they couldn’t meet ratings targets in 2016 and 2017. Given what is likely to be a challenging advertising market in 2020, the last thing the TV networks want to do is spend billions of dollars in guarantees for an NFL that’s wading into the political minefields.
TV networks are incredibly nervous that they’re poised to potentially lose hundreds of millions of dollars more this year at a time when they can least afford to lose the money.
TV networks just care about making money and anything that threatens that makes them less inclined to spend money. This is significant because TV revenue is where a large percentage of player salaries, and owner profits, come from.
4. NFL players
Primary motive: make money while playing football games
We know the NFL, for most players, is a job. And like most people with jobs, NFL players want to make as much money as possible while doing that job. Now if NFL players can also make more money while making the world a better place, that’s also powerful to many.
We like to talk about NFL players as if they have one opinion, but the reality is there are nearly 1700 players on NFL rosters once the season begins.
And they have very different opinions on issues like any other large group of people. But, like any other large group of people, there are many things that almost all of us agree with: cancer and child abuse are bad, kidnapping is wrong, and police murders of innocent people shouldn’t happen. The NFL being opposed to things like this isn’t particularly political.
Again, it’s the anthem kneeling as the means of protest, not the protest itself that hurts business.
And player motivations differ here.
Many agree with Brees’s initial position, many disagree. But there isn’t a monolithic opinion that unites all players. (And many players may well agree with Brees, but now be terrified to say anything publicly because they’re afraid they’ll get attacked. If anything, the silencing of Brees will make many players less likely to want to do anything other than play football. In other words, by shouting down Brees that actually doesn’t create more political discussion, it creates less.)
Some players are only worried about their money. Some are worried about their money, but also care deeply about politics.
But this is important to remember: NFL owners and players are partners. I feel like this gets often overlooked. They share revenues. So if NFL revenues go down, players make less money and so do owners.
The best way to make the most money possible is to sell your product to everyone, regardless of their politics, and not alienate anyone. Remember, the NFL audience is so massive, it essentially reflects America.
My radio show can be wildly successful without appealing to every person. That’s because I serve a niche of the American sporting marketplace. But if the NFL only served a niche, their business collapses. The NFL’s calling card is its ability to speak to everyone: black, white, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, male, female, religious, no religion, Republican, Democrat, or independent.
The NFL needs everyone consuming their product to make the business work.
Do all players understand this or understand where their paycheck comes from? I’m not sure.
If, for instance, you told every player they could advocate for any political opinion they believed in on the field in uniform at work during the national anthem, but they would make 30% less in salary, would most players think this is a fair trade? My guess is they wouldn’t.
So a big part of working with the players here is letting them know how the anthem controversy can impact their salaries.
5. President Donald Trump
Primary motive: re-election in 2020
Donald Trump believes that standing for the anthem is a winning issue for him. So if the NFL players don’t stand for the anthem, he’s going to exploit the issue to his benefit.
Trump’s position is very different from the NFL because unlike players and owners and the NFL in general, Trump doesn’t have to appeal to everyone. He just has to appeal to enough people to win a majority of the electoral vote.
So it’s unlikely Trump is going to abandon this issue, which threatens to keep the NFL in his crosshairs throughout 2020.
Primary motive: be entertained by games
Yes, the fan audience is wide and diverse with a large variety of viewpoints, but most people who watch the NFL do so because they want to be entertained by sports on the field. They don’t want the NFL to be yet another political arena.
This means the NFL is competing with other entertainment options for your time, most of which are apolitical. Significantly that competition isn’t just with sports — the NFL competes now with Netflix and Disney+ and YouTube and every other entertainment option in American life. Before you watch, say, “Fuller House,” they don’t start the production by telling you what politics they believe in, they’re just there to entertain you.
The NFL business is effectively based on entertaining as many people as possible with their product. The more people who like their games, the more money they make. And, significantly, the less people entertained by their product, the less money they make.
The anthem squabble is, at its essence, a business battle involving six major stakeholders.
Given these six stakeholders, how do you resolve the anthem controversy?
Well, I’ve got an idea that I think could work at least for 2020, we’ll call it the Travis Compromise: eliminate everything but the game itself from NFL fields and cite the coronavirus as the reason why.
Let me explain.
We don’t know what NFL crowds are going to look like this fall, but we do know that, at least in theory, NFL pre-season games will begin in August. (It’s possible these pre-season games will still be played, but so far no one is talking about them. Yes, the NFL season begins in September, but a full month before that there are four pre-season games to be played. Will those games actually take place? Will they be played in stadiums? Will any fans be present?)
Right now the first NFL pre-season game — between the Cowboys and Steelers — takes place on August 6th.
That’s less than two months from now.
This year’s games will be unlike any other because the specter of the coronavirus — and a potential second wave later in the fall — will hang over games all season. It’s likely there will be different rules for fans in attendance in, say, Texas and New Jersey. (That is, the Cowboys could have a full stadium and the Giants might not be allowed to have any fans at all).
But the uniform policies of the NFL should be pretty straightforward: no extraneous personnel should be allowed on the field before, during, or after the games to protect the players from any added risk of infection. So why couldn’t the NFL simply eliminate everything but the game itself? That is, no cheerleaders, no photographers or camera men, no anthem singers, no pre-game introductions, no half-time entertainment, no military introduced for flying an airplane over the stadium, no one on the field except for the players, coaches, officials, and medical staffs of the respective teams.
The teams themselves could be instructed not to fraternize at all before or after the game, the only contact between the two teams would happen in the actual game. After the game, there would be no post-game handshakes or media scrums, each team would simply return to their respective locker rooms.
For fans in attendance the national anthem could be played via audio speakers, but that could take place before the players enter the field. (There are medical studies that singing spreads the virus far more significantly than usual conversation).
Once the players get to the field, it’s only to play a game.
Sure, there might be some criticisms of this idea — both from people who want players to kneel and from people who want players to stand — but the NFL could easily respond that they are undertaking all these measures to keep the players safe from the coronavirus during the actual game. And that would be 100% justified given the current medical situation, meaning any criticism would be difficult to gain traction.
But in addition to keeping players safer, this would have the added benefit of effectively removing everything from the game except the game itself.
And in an election year that is likely to be as ugly and divisive as any we have ever seen in our lives, that would be great for the NFL’s business.
We know Americans like football, why not just give them football?