NFL public-relations flak Brian McCarthy put the word out 16 minutes before kickoff: “NFL teams will hold moments of silence today before the National Anthem to salute our veterans & active duty service members for their service & sacrifice.”
On Veterans Day weekend, this “salute” included team personnel wearing camouflage, players with army-green sideline gear emblazoned with American flags (available to purchase online courtesy of Nike), Armed Forces vets leading teams out of the tunnel, and network halftime specials staged at military bases.
Little of this was done out of the goodness of the NFL’s heart, and it wasn’t only because of the league’s commercial partnership with the Department of Defense. This held the overpowering stench of damage control.
The unprecedented player protests against racism, staged during the anthem, have led to an ugly backlash led by Donald Trump and his right-wing echo chamber. They have attempted to reframe these protests as somehow against the flag, the anthem, or the military. Even though this is a lie, and even though public sentiment has shifted toward the players, this was the NFL’s skittish response—and it was laid on so thick, one wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen the players take the field in Kevlar.
It’s not just the NFL as a corporate entity that was on defense. Players fighting the slander that their protest aims are “anti-military” have gone out of their way to write, post, and speak about their own family members in the armed forces. Several of the most prominent athletes protesting racism were even featured in an NFL-produced “salute to service” ad. This is clearly a coordinated—and understandable—effort between the NFL and these players to head off this line of attack. One player said to me, “We’re not against the flag or the troops. But we have to make that clear as a form of protection. People will kill you in this country if they think that you’re against the flag.”
Yet the NFL and protesting players are giving ground to a frightening authoritarian idea, articulated on Twitter by ESPN journalist Howard Bryant: “Protesting police brutality has nothing to do with United States Armed Forces. You don’t need their blessing or permission to demonstrate. Ever.”
This defensive posture also implicitly puts the military in a sacred space, protected from even the thought of criticism. The mere idea of an athlete protesting the aims of the armed forces is now spoken about as if it is the third rail of political dissent—practically unimaginable in the current climate. But confronting militarism is part of the very tradition of athlete activists often cited by these NFL protesters and their defenders.