Man. What a Sunday, huh? Great plays, great games, great finishes—and all of it overshadowed by the politics that descended at last on America’s largest sport.
We’ll remember the NFL’s Protest Sunday in different ways—with rage, with hope, with trepidation, with admiration—but we’ll remember it all the same. This was a pivotal weekend in NFL history, a weekend that will forever alter the trajectory of the league, one way or another. Players, teams, the league itself all have to figure out how to live in an open-protest, post-“SOB” world, and how they handle that over the coming weeks—by charitable outreach, by pallid calls for “unity,” by pretending it never happened—will say much about the NFL’s immediate fate.
But what about you, the fan? Maybe you came out of this weekend infuriated that your team protested during the national anthem. Maybe you came out energized that the league could become a force for good instead of just profit. Maybe you just wanted to watch some football, or maybe you’re done with football once and for all. What do you do now?
I’ll get to that in just a moment, but first, a little metaphor. A bit of sugar before the sermon, if you will. Ever roll up to a drive-thru looking to get a burger or a coffee? You sit there for a moment, staring at the speaker, wondering if it’s even on, and then:
“WELCMFHFH MDOFFLJF FLRRGHH TNNGHHT?”
You try to speak, you get cut off by the voice within the box, you try again, you speak reeeeallly sllllowwwwwly, you finally think you’ve got your order out clearly, and you roll around to the window, certain that the communication problems lie with the clerk on the other end. And all the while, inside the restaurant, they’re trying to figure out what the hell YOU said.
That’s political discussion in 2017. That’s where we are now, and that’s what we’ve got to fight through when we try to have any serious discussion about the protests or the national anthem itself or football or, really, life itself. If you spent any time on social media Sunday—and I kind of hope you didn’t, for your sake—you saw criticism of protests during the anthem break down along a few major lines:
• “Those ungrateful millionaires are protesting the country that gave them the chance to be rich/What do they have to complain about/If they hate America so much, get out!” Adjust spelling, grammar and degree of coded racism as needed.
• “They’re disrespecting the sacrifice of veterans who died for that flag so they could play a game.” Terming the national anthem a hymn to military personnel is certainly one interpretation, but it’s not the only one.
• “As a veteran … ” Many veterans weighed in on how disrespectful they felt the protests were, while many others noted that they fought precisely for the right to allow these kinds of protests.
• “I’m boycotting the NFL!” If this is you, please—get back with me in December and let me know how your boycott is going. I’m serious. I want to know who’s willing to stick to their principles on this.
It’s all enough to make you long for the days when we discussed whether Tom Brady preferred deflated balls, isn’t it?
So what now? Well, this is the point where you, the fan, have to decide what’s most important to you. (If you’re still reading this, and haven’t already banged out a comment/tweet/email, there’s at least some hope for you.) If you want to boycott, that’s your right. If you want to continue to condemn the players as greedy/lazy/ungrateful, hey, that’s your right too.
But if you’ll allow me, I have a simple suggestion. Look, I’m no veteran; I’m a sportswriter. When the apocalypse arrives and the zombies show up, I’ll only be useful for telling you which of the shambling monsters you ought to pick for your Fantasy Zombie Team. But I’ve spent a career on the internet, seen arguments both idiotic and sublime, found peace amid the CAPS LOCK screaming, and so I can offer you just this one bit of advice:
• Listen when the players tell you exactly why they’re protesting, that they’re not protesting the anthem itself but rather a system that they feel oppresses people who look like them. Listen to the concrete plans for racial equality they’d like to implement, the efforts they’ve already made to use their celebrity for good. Listen when they tell you of their own experiences, which might be very, VERY different from the world where you can lob boos their way.
• Listen to the Bills’ Lorenzo Alexander explain, in detail, why the players protested on Sunday specifically in response to President Trump, and why NFL players, as Americans, deserve their own voice:
— Jonah Javad (@JonahJavad) September 24, 2017
• Listen when the Redskins’ Josh Norman describes how stunned he was to live in an America that turned on him and his colleagues so quickly:
An emotional Josh Norman reacts to Trumps latest comments. "Am I American?" Watch the whole thing. pic.twitter.com/7XBnRGIXSV
— JP Finlay (@JPFinlayCSN) September 25, 2017
• Listen when the Dolphins’ Michael Thomas gets choked up at the thought of his daughter growing up in a toxic, divided world, and think about how you’d feel if your own children were in that situation:
Dolphins safety Michael Thomas started breaking up when talking about Trump calling him "a son of a b!tch." pic.twitter.com/Z4wroPcvzW
— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) September 24, 2017
• Listen to the fans who feel betrayed by the NFL, who feel their teams have sold them out, who feel the players have disrespected the flag and the sacrifices of veterans. Their hurt is real, even if their rage is aimed at the wrong targets.
• Listen to the way people and media outlets will twist the protest away from its focus on improving life for African-Americans, turning it instead into a criticism of the flag and of America. It’s not, and anyone telling you otherwise is either ignorant or trying to manipulate you.
• Listen to the way the NFL is trying to rebrand this as “unity,” sanding off the rougher edges of the protest into a locked-arms message of brotherhood that makes for a better promo. Listen, and don’t forget that this protest isn’t about the players or the league. It’s about something much larger.
• Or, if you want, just listen to Al and Cris, or Joe and Troy, or Jim and Tony, or whoever’s announcing this week’s game. That’s just fine too. But the protests aren’t going away, and if you try to just ignore them, your rage won’t, either. “Stick to sports” is as dated as the VCR.
When you—not just you, dear reader, but me as well—do enough shutting up and enough listening, you start to hear voices you hadn’t heard before. You start to realize there are perspectives beyond your own. (Turns out not every Cowboys fan is a frontrunning bandwagoner. Who knew?) Maybe you come away still thinking these guys are spoiled millionaires, but maybe you realize that there’s a larger point here than just attention-grabbing disrespect.
And when you’re done listening, you can do what we all ought to do at a drive-thru in the first place—get out of the bubble that’s your car and go inside to talk to an actual human being. Funny how communication works so much better that way.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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• Pat Forde: Why haven’t we seen anthem protests in college football?