When National Football League owners voted unanimously Wednesday to pass a compromise policy regarding national anthem protests, the league was very careful not to pass judgment on whether the protests themselves were good or bad, only that they are bad for business.
And that, friends, is really all you need to know. The NFL is guided by the morality of the marketplace. If its partners who sell beer and razor blades and pickup trucks are upset that their wares are being peddled in an environment that might turn off some of their customers, then something is going to change, even if only for cosmetic purposes. If some fans are annoyed to the point of turning off their televisions or choosing not to attend games, then something is going to change, even if the change is designed to hide the issue rather than address it.
"We believe today's decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it, and on our fans who enjoy it," commissioner Roger Goodell said. "It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. That is not and never was the case."
Heavens, no. The players might be routinely popped for violating the league's rules on performance-enhancing drugs, or might be cited more than the average population for abuse of domestic partners, or might display some aberrant behavior related to repeated blows to the head. But unpatriotic? Unfit to provide the entertainment between commercials? No, no, a thousand times, no.
The NFL chose a brilliant answer to its dilemma. Players can still protest the anthem, but they will be put somewhere no one can see the protest. If a player is on the field during the anthem, he has to "stand and show respect for the flag," according to Goodell. Players are not required to be out there for the anthem, however. They can remain in the locker room, or some other waiting area near the field, if they so choose.
If a player does take a knee or sit down, the league will fine the team, and the team has the option to punish the player. In other words, the NFL has gotten out of the business of disciplining players over this issue, which is brilliant, if a bit of a cop-out.
"The platform that we have created together is certainly unique in professional sports and quite likely in American business. We are honored to work with our players to drive progress," Goodell said.
It's not clear exactly how that is being achieved as the NFL shoves the protests underneath the stands, but the league is very proud of itself for thinking of this.
The details of how this is supposed to work are a little murky, of course. Goodell didn't say how much the teams would be fined, for instance. Is it a million dollars or five bucks? Will the fines be announced? He didn't address the gray areas of protest, including players like Malcolm Jenkins who, in the past, stood for the anthem, but raised a fist. Well, he's standing. Is that all right, or does the fist earn an automatic deduction from the judges?
The owners have voted to throw all the difficult decisions into their own laps, which could be messy and ruin their suits. If the players are going to suffer financially for choosing to protest on the field, it has to be their own employers imposing the punishment. That's not a position that would play well in the locker room or do much for team unity and commitment to the organization. But that's what they voted for, unanimously.
Give Goodell credit for selling the thing successfully. The man can sell. He's even selling the league's belief in moral protest as he works to make it invisible. The league is "dedicated to continuing our collaboration with players to advance the goals of justice and fairness in all corners of our society," the commissioner said.
As long as you don't attempt to advance those goals where people are most likely to see them, of course. That's bad for business, and, as nearly as you can tell from what Goodell said, it is all that makes the protests bad.