By: Andi DiMatteo
Reparations. Immigration. Affirmative Action. These are terms in the United States that tend to elicit strong responses and opinions. Football, on the other hand? Traditionally, it’s not a very polarizing word. However in the past week, comments made by President Trump have created a painful divide in an arguably quintessential part of America’s culture. He targeted the National Football League (NFL) at a campaign rally with a reference to Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, alleging Kaepernick should be fired for disrespecting the flag. Kaepernick made headlines last year for kneeling rather than standing during the national anthem to protest oppression and brutality against people of color in the U.S.
Trump’s comments created a public relations crisis within the NFL brand, because the range of stakeholders is so diverse. Between extensive media coverage of games, celebrity status of players and now comments from Donald Trump, it’s hard to escape the pervasiveness of the sport in American society. The NFL could not have stayed silent and ignored this issue, especially when it stemmed from the highest office in the nation. However, determining a plan of action was sure to be difficult because it could be easy to seem unpatriotic by disagreeing with the president’s defense of the flag.
Ultimately, the traditionally conservative NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) decided to side with the rights of their individual players, giving them a space to freely express their opinions without threat of punishment. “No man or woman should ever have to choose a job that forces them to surrender their rights,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement.
This statement led to more demonstrations across games this week, with players kneeling during the national anthem or, in the case of the majority of players for the Pittsburgh Steelers, even opting to stay in their locker room until the song was over. Even individuals who were previously alligned with Trump made statements of dissent in regard to his actions. Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots who has had a close relationship with the president over the past year said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made.”
The #TakeaKnee protests were popularized on social media and drew even non-football fans into the conversation surrounding the national controversy. However, the constitutional first amendment argument and justification by the NFL is not enough to ease the tension between players, the league must issue a more concise statement outlining its sentiments not only solidify the brand, but help to smooth over the controversy. It’s not enough to acknowledge that their players have the right to free speech, the NFL should encourage it.
By prioritizing and creating a cohesive public relations strategy to follow in times of crisis such as this, the NFL will be able to be a stronger and more proactive brand, engaging and maintaining relationships with stakeholders across the country.