As the furor over NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem rekindles, the full power of the players themselves has not yet come into play. Presidential politics and U.S. culture wars combined to make the issue a dominant subplot of the 2017 NFL season. In late May, the league’s team owners reopened the debate by deciding to create a policy requiring players on the field during the playing of the national anthem to stand, under penalty of fines and on-field penalties, though players can also stay in the locker room.
The policy was made and passed unilaterally, without consultation of the players or their labor union, the NFL Players Association. Unusually, the owners didn’t even conduct a formal vote, and at least two owners abstained from the informal vote that was taken. President Donald Trump responded favorably and injected fresh criticism into the process by suggesting that NFL players who choose to stay in the locker room during the anthem “maybe … shouldn’t be in the country.”
Having made their moves, the teams and the president have three months before the 2018 season begins, in which to wait for players to respond. What happens next is uncertain, but my background as a sports and social media researcher tells me it could be both surprising and unexpected for those who have traditionally wielded the most power in the NFL.
Why is this happening now?
The timing of the owners’ move is both calculated and politically savvy for the NFL. The announcement did generate significant backlash from many sports media commentators, as well as current and former players and the players’ union. The long Memorial Day holiday weekend didn’t do much to blunt those criticisms, but it’s likely that the most negative reactions will dissipate by the middle of the summer.
If and when the issue is reignited, it will likely be viewed as the players creating the issue, rather than the owners. For instance, the players’ union is considering whether and how to respond – including potentially claiming violations of the collective bargaining agreement under which football players work.
How effective their actions are will depend largely on how the players present themselves on social media – what communications scholars call “framing.”
Framing the controversy
The controversy began in the 2016 NFL preseason with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick protesting structural and institutional racism and bias in the U.S., particularly in American police practices.
The NFL’s initial reaction supported Kaepernick’s right to protest, saying “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.” The 49ers organization was even more direct: “In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
There were initial complaints about Kaepernick’s choice not to stand for the anthem – including feedback that led to him taking a knee rather than just sitting on the bench. But the protest didn’t become a public lightning rod until President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence created a new frame around Kaepernick’s kneeling in protest against injustice. They proclaimed he was disrespecting the country and its military.
The effect was immediate and stunning. Before Trump objected, more than 60 percent of his supporters viewed the NFL “somewhat or very favorably.” In less than a month after he first spoke out against the NFL for allowing Kaepernick’s protests to continue, that plummeted to near 30 percent. That drop no doubt played a part in the NFL owners’ recent action to block on-field protests.
Regaining control of the narrative
As the players determine how to respond, they’re starting from a difficult position. Historically, NFL owners have almost always won their public relations battles, whether against players in collective bargaining negotiations or against government watchdogs in public stadium funding battles.
However, the players have a tool they can use to try and reframe the protests, and keep the focus on their message: social media. With Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, they can communicate directly with fans and provide sports media observers nationwide with cogent and reasoned justifications for their actions.
Some players have already began to reframe the protests as a First Amendment issue, which current Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long did on May 23. In general, Americans support free speech and object to attempts to limit it – even in the workplace.
Other players have pointed out that having players stand on the field for the national anthem is a relatively new phenomenon in the NFL, dating from 2009. That point could also connect with a growing backlash against payments from the U.S. Department of Defense for overt displays of national pride on the football field, such as staged family reunions for soldiers returning from overseas.
There is no guarantee of success with either approach. The hyperpartisan nature of the current political environment may mean that public opinion won’t change. But NFL players have to try and seize control of the narrative, and social media provides a better platform than any other to attempt that.
Connecting directly with fans is important, and venues like Facebook and Snapchat provide that opportunity. It’s perhaps even more important to connect with media members across the country, because they can influence coverage and public discourse; Twitter gives players a direct line to reporters and columnists.
It seems unlikely that the public debate over the protests will disappear quietly, despite what the NFL owners want. For players who find themselves in an increasingly perilous public relations battle, it will be important to control the framing, using social media to assist them – and perhaps even bringing the discussion back to where it started, with police shootings of African-American men.