The National Football League recently announced a controversial policy prohibiting its players and affiliated employees from sitting or kneeling during the National Anthem. The league’s policy will allow players the option of not participating in the National Anthem by staying inside the locker room. Players choosing to violate this policy risk suspensions, and their teams will be fined.
This type of organizational behavior had a tone of familiarity. It reminded me of my time serving in the United States military.
Few institutions in the public or private sector have as much in common as the NFL and the United States armed forces. First, both are deeply conservative institutions rooted in traditions that seem somewhat antiquated. Second, its employees are required to wear uniforms with rigid regulations. Third, few enterprises restrict the personal freedoms of their employees as much as the NFL and armed forces.
Furthermore, both institutions have been late adopters in welcoming the societal changes impacting its personnel, and both institutions seem to care little about the perspectives and opinions of their rank and file.
Both also have troubled records at addressing sexual assault and domestic violence within the ranks. It took a decade into the 21st Century for Congress to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” The notion of openly homosexual players within NFL locker rooms is deeply controversial. According to SB Nation, a sports blog, only 11 players in the history of the NFL have publicly come out. Most have done so in retirement. It’s as If “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is the NFL’s policy on sexuality.
Don’t get me wrong, the NFL has a litany of problems. But is the protest ban one of them?
This policy is deeply divisive and it seems America has split along partisan lines. The New York Times editorial page called the ban on protesting the National Anthem “insulting,” and that it “override[s] the best interests of America…[and] substitute[s] a phony pageant of solidarity for a powerful civics lesson.”
In contrast, Vice President of the United States Mike Pence channeled his inner Charlie Sheen and issued a Tweet with the hashtag #winning following the announcement. While I think spiking the football is a bit of an overreach, and inappropriate by a member of the Executive branch, I support the policy and I believe the National Football League is well within their right to institute this ban.
What’s more, if there is a group of people who can empathize with the NFL players, it is military veterans. To reiterate an earlier point, few enterprises restrict the personal freedoms of their employees like the military.
I remember being restricted to the barracks for 14 days early in my career for an error in judgment. I literally could not leave my floor except for eating and participating in the military’s time-honored tradition of cleaning the barracks, or as we called it, Field Day. Some days I worked 16-18-hour days for weeks on end, and without additional compensation such as overtime. If I was lucky, I got a comp day. Then there were days I was denied leave, and had to stand duty on Christmas day because I was the junior guy on staff (seniority has its perks).
Such is life as an enlisted member in the military. But if I protested such perceived malpractices, I risked my future with a dishonorable discharge. What ties the military and the NFL together—and what makes this country great—is that we have a choice to work where we choose. I accepted sacrificing my Constitutional rights for the tenets of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and drudgery of military service because I saw the incredible upside and incentives of service. I earned a Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree from elite institutions at almost no cost thanks to the Post-911 GI Bill. I bought my first house one year ago with the aid of the VA Loan.
In contrast, few enterprises offer greater financial incentives, and societal platforms for change than the one percent of elite athletes who play in the NFL. According to “Forbes” magazine, the average NFL salary is approximately $2.1 million. Such economic security can provide any NFL athlete with the resources and platform to combat the issues they are passionate about in their off duty time. By the same token, the NFL as a business enterprise has the right to establish rules that employees must follow.
The application of choice is powerful and not without consequences. I didn’t have to serve in the military. Football players don’t have to play in the NFL. It’s that simple. What’s more, if the athletes really care about making a statement, they should put their money where your mouth is. Rather than take a knee, take a stand and go on strike.
As the saying goes, money talks and bullshit walks. Nothing captures the attention of corporate America more than lost revenues.
Christopher Evanson holds the U.S. Coast Guard chair on Long March’s Council of Former Enlisted. He earned a Master of Professional Studies in Public Relations and Corporate Communications from Georgetown University and a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from the American University.