Fans outraged by NFL player protests are calling for a boycott of the league this Veterans Day weekend. While they oppose players kneeling during the national anthem, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. (VFW) are not urging their members to boycott league games and TV telecasts during Week 10. Instead, they tell Sporting News, they're leaving it up to their members to make the decision on their own.
The NFL has taken heat for reacting slowly to the controversy over players kneeling, sitting or raising a fist for social justice. But Commissioner Roger Goodell and other NFL executives proactively met with nonpartisan, nonprofit groups including the Legion (2.4 million members) and VFW (1.7 million members) in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 30 to reaffirm the league's commitment to the U.S. armed forces, veterans and their families.
In no uncertain terms, the Legion and VFW told Goodell they disagree with NFL players not standing during the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and presentation of the American flag, but the veterans groups also said they respect players' First Amendment rights. At least from the standpoint of the Legion and VFW, there won't be any organized boycott of the NFL around Veterans Day, the federal holiday designated for Nov. 11 (this year it will be observed on Friday).
Goodell, who is fighting off a coup attempt by disgruntled Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, was wise to meet with veterans groups who have been smoldering over the NFL's seeming acceptance of the player anthem protests, which started in 2016.
With TV audiences down, sponsors such as Papa John's on the warpath and empty seats at stadiums across America, the last thing the NFL needs is for millions of military veterans to formally embrace the #BoycottNFL counterprotest that began last year. It looked like things were heading that way when Denise H. Rohan, national commander of the American Legion, blasted "misguided and ungrateful" NFL players on Sept. 25. The NFL is guilty of "disrespect," she said in a statement. She lamented the politicization of what used to be a "display of unity" at NFL games and other sporting events.
The U.S. flag code "calls on all present to stand at attention while the anthem is played. It wasn’t political when it was written and it shouldn’t be political today. Having a right to do something does not make it the right thing to do," Rohan said. "We salute Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva (of the Steelers), who stood alone respecting the flag as his teammates stayed in their locker room (before Pittsburgh's game in Chicago in Week 3). NASCAR also deserves credit for their support of our anthem. There are many ways to protest, but the national anthem should be our moment to stand together as one UNITED States of America.”
During the meeting with the Legion that included Goodell, 49ers chief executive officer Jed York and Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, the NFL asked executive director Verna Jones and spokesman Chanin Nuntavong how the veterans group felt about the player protests. The American Legion reminded Goodell its group has stood for respecting the flag/anthem since its founding in 1919.
Goodell said he understood, but he also told Jones and Nuntavong he would not force his protesting players to stand. It doesn't sound like either group came away completely satisfied. Still, the Legion has not — and will not — ask members to boycott the NFL, according to Nuntavong.
Our Executive Director @VernaJonesDC & media relations @Khun_Chanin met with the @NFL to discuss "protest to progress" & how the NFL and @AmericanLegion can work together to help local communities and support our servicemembers. @nflcommish @MBidwill @JedYork DickCass @aeneas35 pic.twitter.com/UbdW8yfsyp— American Legion DC (@LegioninDC) October 30, 2017
"People are free to do as they please. If they want to watch the football games. Or not. I know a lot of our members are boycotting on their own. We support that. And we support those who watch the NFL," he said.
Genius absolute Genious— Lady Liberti (@lady_liberti) November 9, 2017
This is Veterans weekend. Total #BoycottNFL Stadiums Radio TV Social Media Internet Absolutely NO #NFL #BoycottNFLSponsors too! #MAGA # #WeStandForOurAnthem #POTUS pic.twitter.com/KenitvXNLx
#boycottNFLsponsors Ha! https://t.co/RSEn8fHJKf is trying to slow down these boycott HASHES.not going to work BIG BROTHER. #maga #trumptrain #BoycottNFL #hollywoodisdead #BoycottESPN pic.twitter.com/ftN89AScSm— FATHER MENACE (@FATHERMENACE) November 9, 2017
That same day, Goodell's NFL group also met with the VFW, which was established in 1899.
The organization's former national commander, Brian Duffy, fired one of the earliest shots across the bow of the NFL when former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first protested last year.
"The American flag and our national anthem stand for something, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States salutes all who stand with us," Duffy said on Aug. 29, 2016.
Duffy's successor, Keith Harman, met with Goodell and his group this year, according to spokesman Joe Davis.
"The commissioner wanted to assure the VFW that the League remains 100 percent committed to supporting veterans, service members and their families. He said the players who initially knelt — and the very few who continue — do so to draw attention to deep-dividing social issues," Davis told Sporting News in an e-mail. "Mr. Harman made it crystal clear that no VFW member will ever disagree with First Amendment rights, but that the use of the flag as a prop just doesn't sit well with those who have worn the uniform. It’s a conversation that continues."
When it comes to players standing for the anthem, the veterans groups are in agreement with Goodell, who said during a Bloomberg event in New York on Wednesday: "People come to our stadiums to be entertained and have fun, not to be protested to."
The difference is in the details. Goodell's critics want him to enforce vague guidelines that say all players should stand for the anthem; Goodell has refused to do so. He's trying instead to convince players there are better ways to fight for their cause.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy (ed: No relation to the author) told Sporting News that Goodell's position on anthem protests hasn't changed since last year.
"He looks at the national anthem as a patriotic and important part of an NFL game, a longstanding tradition. He wants everyone to stand, from players to coaches to fans in the stands," McCarthy said. At the same time, Goodell "respects the right of players as Americans to observe in that fashion."
Is Goodell considering a rule similar to the NBA's that requires all players to stand? "No," McCarthy replied. "That hasn't been part of this."
The rupture with veterans groups has been particularly painful for the NFL.
Hundreds of NFL players and coaches have direct family ties to the military. The Steelers’ Villanueva served as an Army Ranger. Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s aunt and uncle are both Lieutenant Colonels in the Army. The father of Panthers head coach Ron Rivera served 32 years in the Army. Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks’s father and uncle served in the Marine Corps.
The father of Michael and Martellus Bennett — both of whom have joined the protest — served 10 years in the Navy. There’s plenty of former NFL stars such as Michael Strahan who grew up as Army or Air Force brats on military bases around the world.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s also plenty of ex-military who don’t see the player protests as disrespectful or unpatriotic. In fact, just the opposite.
"There are veterans who not only agree with Colin Kaepernick’s right to do that, but also agree with the substance of the action. And are willing to stand up and say Black Lives Matter and this is an important issue that we need to address in our country,” Army vet Richard Allen Smith told ESPN’s "The Undefeated" last year.
The league has spent decades building its brand as almost a sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces. With its pregame displays of giant flags, jet flyovers and honor guards, no pro sport has tried harder to embed itself into the patriotic, muscular ethos of the military.
Last weekend the NFL staged its annual "Salute to Service" honoring active-duty service members and their families. The league annually works with an array of military nonprofits, including the Pat Tillman Foundation, the USO (United Service Organizations), TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) and the Wounded Warrior Project. Over the past six years, the league has raised more than $17 million to support military nonprofits.
McCarthy told Sporting News the meetings last week with the American Legion and VFW were part of that ongoing outreach.
"We reaffirmed the NFL's strong support of the military and our veterans. Then we also discussed ways we're helping promote and recognize military members," McCarthy said.
Goodell has tried to thread an impossible needle: maintain the league's respect for the flag, anthem and military while also giving players the freedom to protest racial injustice.
"Our players are important to us. Our players are important, their perspectives are important," he noted at the Bloomberg event. "It’s important to our fans, so what we have to do is try to find solutions to those things over the long term while respecting our values and respecting viewpoints that we may not necessarily agree with."
But if hardcore owners like Jones and the Redskins' Dan Snyder — and President Donald Trump, too — get their way, they'll force Goodell to pass a league rule that says players must stand for the anthem — or else.
And if Goodell won't do that, then they may hire a new commissioner who's more to their liking.