The NFL’s Last Chance to (not) Fall Victim to the Nation’s Political Divide

A Patriots fan watches the final moments of the 2018 Super Bowl.

A little background

The official kickoff to the NFL season is tonight, when the Eagles take on the Falcons. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first I have to tell you about my weekend.
There’s a festival in my town every Labor Day weekend that’s supposed to celebrate our community’s Italian heritage. 

Most people in my town may look like your run-of-the-mill-Midwestern rednecks, but there really is a strong Italian heritage. You could see this for yourself if you thumbed through a phone book (assuming you didn’t throw it away after the Phonebook Fairy dropped it on your front porch) and seeing all the Italian-sounding last names, like Giovanini, Marietta, Fenoglio, Corleone and Mamamiathat’saspicymeatball. (I might have to fact check those last two.)
Anyway, the festival has strayed a long way from its authentic, ancestry-celebrating roots, but there’s still a lot to love about the festival, like live music in a venue called the Wine Gardens where you can hear variations of many beloved songs, such as “Sweet Caroline”, arranged for accordion and trumpet. 

A cheap T-shirt foretells the NFL’s destiny

I could go on and on about the festival, but this is allegedly a sports column, so let me get to the point.
At the non-authentic, cheap carnival end of the festival, there’s always tents full of inexpensive, knockoff clothing. There’s usually a lot of NFL gear in these tents (celebrating our Italian ancestors, who watched the first Super Bowl in the Coliseum). The NFL gear was less common this year, and there was a new T-shirt that read, “Stand for the flag, kneel for the cross.”

In case you’ve been in a coma the last two years or have no awareness of religious imagery, the T-shirt was pro-Christian, anti-NFL players kneeling during the anthem before games.
Cheesy? Yes. Pandering? Oh, you betcha! But yet there it was, and it was only there in that slick T-shirt salesman’s tent because it’s selling. And it’s selling because a lot of people are fed up with the NFL.

NFL fans didn’t sign up to become social issue commentators

I know the NFL appears to finally be taking action on this, but I really expect some players will rock the boat, the league will amend its rules, leaving fans in political debate purgatory every game.
Let’s pretend you’re (God help you!) a Patriots fan, and you’re about to watch a game with some of your buddies. As a Patriots fan, you have a lot to answer for, such as: Why do you root for an Evil Empire? Is Belichick allergic to sweatshirt sleeves and smiles? And finally, why hasn’t Massachusetts passed a state law forbidding Tom Brady from appearing in any non-game film after the repulsive disaster that was Tom vs. Time?
But instead of focusing on these football-centric issues, you’re forced into another debate when you look up during the anthem and see players kneeling. Whereas before you were only a sports fan, now you have to give your opinion on whether or not the anthem protests are appropriate. Shouldn’t players use their platform to speak out on their beliefs? Or maybe they should shut up during games and focus their messaging to their millions of followers on social media?
You had no plan on participating in this argument. A thousand airhead commentators argue about this kind of thing every day, and you’d be more than content to leave politics to them.
Up till now, the NFL hasn’t been able to keep its fans from being shoved into this awkward position. It looks like they’re trying this year, but judging by the league’s recent history on decision-making (it takes entire seasons to decide what is and isn’t a catch, for instance), the rules will probably fluctuate on a weekly basis.

A history of soft leadership

As a longtime NFL fan, I hope they can figure it out, but I think this season is what’s been the king of sport’s last chance to keep a steady grip on the crown. Head injuries and endless reviews on catches aren’t helpful to the NFL, but they’re not nearly as harmful as the poison of politics. There are a lot of Americans who love combining red meat and cold beer with watching their NFL team on Sunday afternoons.
But if the NFL falls as another victim of the political divide in the country, American sorts fans will persevere and find something else to look forward to. I hear pickle ball is growing in popularity. The “NPL” doesn’t have quite as nice a ring to it, but anything’s possible. 
Maybe I can celebrate my own Italian heritage by starting a National Bocce League. The only controversy in that league would be whether or not it’s appropriate to play the National Anthem on an accordion. Plus, salami would be an excellent concession stand food.

This column was originally published Sept. 8, 2018, in the Republic-Monitor. See more football columns here.

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