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The NFL Proxy War

America's cold civil war gets warmer on the gridiron.

By Petrarch  |  September 27, 2017

The "cold civil war" between the left and traditional Americans is cropping up all across the fruited plain where you'd least expect it, even in places that should have nothing to do with politics.

Like football.  American football is an American sport, but in principle there's no reason for it to involve politics.

Indeed, over the years sports has shown the way to a more perfect illustration of Americanism: every person, no matter who they are, should have the right to rise to whatever level their ability and efforts permits.  How many NFL multimillionaires grew up in poverty?  Lots.  In contrast, how many players are there just because of who their daddy is?  None.

That's the way America is supposed to be, and it has no room for racism.  Is it racist that blacks are cashing zillion-dollar NFL paychecks far out of proportion to their numbers?  Not at all: the individual players, who happen to be black, are the best in the world at what they do and are receiving what they are freely offered in exchange for their services.  A racist team coach or owner wouldn't last long in such a competitive sport.

Fighting On Every Side

Which makes it so ironic that the NFL has reluctantly become the latest venue for our ever-more-vituperative national "conversation" on race.

Last year, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took it upon himself to protest police shootings of black men by disrespecting the national anthem that represents all Americans - one of the very few remaining elements of social unity in These Divided States of America.

At first, he remained seated while 40,000 patriotic Americans stood.  After a private meeting with a military veteran, he began kneeling instead - an improvement, to be sure, but still an intentional disrespect contrary to standard protocol.  It's probably no coincidence that 49ers revenues plummeted and Mr. Kaepernick is spending this year unemployed.

All Americans agree that Mr. Kaepernick has a perfect right to express his political opinions in any nonviolent way he chooses, and he has never shown or called for any violence not inherent to the game of football.  What neither Mr. Kaepernick nor anybody else enjoys, however, is a right to indulge his political views on someone else's dime - which is exactly where he is when on the gridiron, in the stadium, or in the locker room.

Playing any professional sport requires a spectacular degree of athleticism, but first and foremost, pro athletes are entertainers.  The only reason grown men get paid fortunes to chase a ball around on a field is because millions of other men and women willingly pay good money to watch them do it.

As a general business rule, it is not a good idea to gratuitously and publicly insult your customers; viewers of NFL game have long been known to trend toward the patriotic political right.  Even being based in America's most liberal city did not protect the team's revenues.  Yet the 49ers did not fire him out of hand, and the problem has been metastasizing even as NFL ratings drop across the board.

For the most part, the widespread anger and offense at NFL player protests has been felt silently, in the balance-sheets of the teams and Nielsen ratings of the broadcasters.  Then President Donald Trump waded into the affray with a barnburner of a speech:

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!" You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, "That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired." ...

But you know what’s hurting the game more than that? When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they are playing our great national anthem. The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium, I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave.

In effect, President Trump demanded of the team owners that they make a choice: side with your protesting players, or side with your customers who pay the bills.

The owners chose to side with their teams: this past Sunday, many of the players knelt for the anthem or wimped out by staying in the locker room.  Wimping out was perhaps better - in many stadiums, the kneeling players were savagely booed by the audience - but a profile in courage it ain't.  Sure enough, ratings fell by an additional 8% from the previous week's already low numbers.

Football As War?

It's a shame that our poisoned politics has now corrupted a well-loved pastime, but that may be better than the alternative.

For the half-century of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, two massively armed titans stood glaring at each other across the oceans.  Either one could destroy the entire world; both knew it.  That knowledge was enough to give them pause.  As President Reagan pointed out to Premier Gorbachev, neither wanted to see their grandchildren turned to ashes in a nuclear holocaust.

Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) didn't mean there was no fighting and death between capitalism and communism, it just meant it was restricted to (mostly) proxy wars in fundamentally irrelevant places.  The dead on both sides in Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Kenya, Nigeria, and dozens of other places throughout the world wouldn't like to see their sacrifices belittled, but none of those countries really mattered much to the existence of humankind.  If American and the Soviets had ever come directly to blows, though, you might not be reading this today.

In effect, the proxy wars allowed scalps to be taken and pissing contests to be undertaken without doing global damage.  They also reminded both sides of the grave dangers as well as the glory of war: America wanted nothing to do with wars for years after the bloodbath of Vietnam, and the Russians had much the same reaction to their similar experience in Afghanistan.

Eventually, both sides came to an accommodation; we may not be best buds with Vladimir Putin, but neither of us have our twitching fingers anywhere near the nuclear button.  We annoy each other fairly often and blame each other for whatever happens that we don't like but never go any further than that.

Are Americans of both political persuasions truly football fans?  Do they love the game, and will they miss it as it is spoiled by politics that should have no place there?  If that's so, perhaps we'll learn our lesson, and we might reach a tacit agreement to keep politics confined to its proper place.

And if not?  In 1968, an unidentified army officer achieved nameless immortality with his explanation of the obliteration of the village of Ben Tre and its occupants:

It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.

If that's how the Left feels, they won't mind as national sports collapse in acrimony, protests, counter-protest, and general disgust.  Then we'll know if they have any sanity left at all.  This would be well worth finding out before they take the same approach to our entire nation, assuming that they haven't already.