ORLANDO, Florida — Troubled by back-to-back years of declining TV ratings and data that indicate an erosion of their core fan base, a number of NFL owners believe the solution heading into the 2018 season lies in “reclaiming the narrative” — turning the spotlight away from polarizing social and political issues and focusing on the game itself.
The sentiment is in reaction to an apparent fan backlash against player protests last season calling attention to racial inequality. It erupted into a national firestorm in September when President Donald Trump attacked players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, saying they were unpatriotic and should be fired. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell immediately countered, and the league’s 32 teams followed with statements that varied widely in tone and content — from fierce defenses of players’ right to express themselves to affirmations of the U.S. military and its veterans.
Five months later, the NFL is still wrestling with how to extricate itself from a political quagmire that many team owners believe was foisted upon them and stands to hurt their bottom line, if it hasn’t done so already. For a multibillion-dollar enterprise, the stakes and fractious nature of the issue were evident at the NFL’s annual meeting here in late March.
“If you don’t have the fans, you’re dead, so we’ve got to pay attention to them and make sure that they know we respect the flag, we respect our service people, we love our country,” Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said. “Our playing fields — that’s not the place for political statements. That’s not the place for religious statements. That’s the place for football.”
Other NFL owners were less dogmatic when asked about strategy going forward on two fronts: How should the NFL handle the anthem ceremonies, and how can it expand its audience and reclaim fans alienated by the controversy?
“These are really important matters; you can’t minimize anything,” said Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan. “But we have to recognize, people are there to watch a sport — for the entertainment aspect. I think the 20 days football is played have to be treated a little bit differently than the other 345 days. Football is a powerful force in America, and really it bears undue burden because of how big it is and the exposure it gets and the power it has. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t balance all that. But I think the days football is played have to be treated very special, and you can’t have distractions.”
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft called the anthem policy “a sensitive, complicated issue” and said he’d save his comments about it for the owners’ next meeting in May. Among the ideas under discussion: Should they require players to stand? Should they keep players in the locker room until after the anthem is played? Should they uphold their current policy, which requires players to be on the sideline for the anthem and states they “should” stand but doesn’t mandate it?
“I believe with anybody, if you dictate something, whether as a parent or what, you generally don’t get the result you’re looking for if you dictate,” said Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco 49ers. “I think everybody in a democracy has a right to have their voice heard. It doesn’t mean everybody is going to like what you have to say, but you have the right to have your voice heard.”