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The NFL is being squeezed by boycotts from both sides over anthem protests

There’s no easy fix for a league with a majority of black players and a mostly white audience

Before the kickoff of their season-opening game, the Cleveland Browns played a video on their stadium screen featuring players of various races and ethnicities extolling unity, diversity and equality. The athletes made statements such as “our differences make us stronger” and “no matter your race or no matter your gender we are all created equally” as patriotic music thrummed and an American flag rippled.

Browns fan Tim Zvoncheck wasn’t watching. The Gulf War veteran and commander of VFW Post 3345 in the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville boycotted Sunday’s game because Browns players had kneeled during the national anthem before a preseason game. Thousands more football fans also tuned out Week 1 games, but for the opposite reason — the NFL’s exclusion of Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who ignited a wave of protests last season by taking a knee to highlight racial inequality.

As player activism becomes more widespread, the NFL is caught in a tightening vise of boycotts from both sides of the political spectrum. Sports is often a place where America puts aside its differences to enjoy the spirit of competition and community, but even the massively popular NFL is threatened by these extraordinarily divisive times — and there’s no easy escape for a league in which the majority of players are black and the audience is mostly white.

“It’s tough, the decisions that the NFL will have to make going forward,” Browns tight end Randall Telfer, who appeared in the video, told The Undefeated.

“At the end of the day, it’s political. When it gets political, you’re going to have polar opposite views. You have people who feel strongly about what they believe in. It’s hard to change that mindset,” Telfer said.

Todd Boyd, a Southern Cal professor who studies race, sports and pop culture, said the NFL’s conundrum is a result of two forces: “The emergence of black athletes since the death of Trayvon Martin as politically conscious activists, coupled with the right-wing shift in the country’s politics that has occurred during this same period of time. So it brings us to this point that the NFL, the most popular sport in the country, has become the site of all these political tensions playing out.”

In Week 1, eight players sat, kneeled, or raised a fist during the national anthem, including Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who says he was recently roughed up and cursed out by Las Vegas police during a videotaped arrest. Fourteen more players stood near protesting teammates in support, including 10 members of the San Francisco 49ers who gathered around kneeling safety Eric Reid. None of the Browns took a knee during their season opener — they locked arms with police and military members, with team owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam standing nearby, as the video played.

“When it gets political, you’re going to have polar opposite views.”

A large crowd protested in support of Kaepernick outside the Chicago Bears-Atlanta Falcons game in Chicago. Black-owned businesses from Chicago to Brooklyn, New York, turned off NFL games. Baseball legend Henry Aaron tuned out. A boycott tweet from activist Shaun King was retweeted more than 19,000 times. A #NoKaepernickNoNFL petition on change.org grew past 177,000 signatures.

“The NFL stepped into this issue,” said Atlanta activist Gerald Griggs, who helped organize the Chicago protest. “When Mr. Kaepernick decided to take a knee, and they decided not to handle it the best way, they became a part of this bigger conversation. They could have easily said, ‘We embrace Kaepernick expressing his First Amendment rights,’ but no, they wanted to blackball him.”

Griggs pointed to the ratings for the first game of the season Sept. 7, when 22.2 million viewers watched the Kansas City Chiefs beat the defending champion New England Patriots — down from 25.2 million viewers for the first game last season. “That’s just the beginning of their economic disturbance,” Griggs said. “I think the NFL needs to do a better calculation of their economic situation.”

At this point, he would not be satisfied simply with the end of Kaepernick’s exile: “That’s one of the goals. But I think it’s moved to a second strategy of wanting the league to address the systemic issues of racial injustice and police brutality. We are happy with what happened in Cleveland [with the video], but don’t think it went far enough.”

Neither does Zvoncheck — but in the opposite direction.

He watched the Browns’ video after the game and called it “beautiful.” But he says his VFW post won’t be showing any football until the owners or league stamp out the protests.

“When will we turn the games back on? When we feel things are moving in the right direction. … It just has to be addressed and stop across the league,” he said.

About 500 supportive calls, emails and monetary donations have poured into the Strongsville VFW post, Zvoncheck said, and other veterans groups have joined their blackout. They are part of a movement against the protesting players expressed in articles and social media posts urging “patriots” to turn off their TVs.

“This all starts last year with Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand during the national anthem. That didn’t sit very well with us, but it’s one person,” Zvoncheck said. “It certainly wasn’t our team at the time. But to see how this has grown among players over the past year or so, then to see what happened a few weeks ago with the Browns — nearly a dozen of them decided to, in their words, pray during the anthem instead of standing and respecting what’s going on — it does not sit well with us.”

Telfer was one of the Browns players who supported the kneeling athletes by standing next to them during the anthem. When the backlash hit, Telfer and other players met with team owners and executives, including black head coach Hue Jackson and black executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown, to try to chart a different course.

The result included the video, meetings with local police and plans for more community engagement. Telfer hopes the outcome can help lead the NFL out of its political pickle.

“I think the idea of unity and equality in our video is something that everyone can get behind. I’m not speaking for the NFL, but I think that message will resonate with a lot of people,” he said.

“Football is a microcosm of what we want our nation to be like, groups of guys from all walks of life coming together and working for a shared goal,” Telfer said. “That’s what we want for our community.”

Browns vice president of communications Peter John-Baptiste said more players are realizing they have the platform to make a positive difference.

“The attention that the league gets, people see the power that it has, they know they can have an impact on society,” John-Baptiste said. “So people are going to take advantage of that. It’s a really powerful thing.”

But that attention isn’t guaranteed. NFL ratings declined last season, with some research indicating that player protests caused or at least contributed to the slide.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has tried to walk the line between protesting athletes and unhappy fans in his infrequent public statements. An NFL spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Speaking to Arizona Cardinals season-ticket holders in August, Goodell said that “we have to understand that there are people with different viewpoints. … The national anthem is a special moment to me. It’s a point of pride. That is a really important moment. But we also have to understand the other side that people do have rights and we want to respect those.”

Asked how the NFL has handled the dueling boycotts, USC professor Boyd said, “The NFL has not handled anything. They haven’t done anything. It’s a lack of action more than it is action.”

He noted that head injuries and domestic violence by players also are eroding the NFL’s standing, and he recalled the moment in the 1980s when Howard Cosell, once one of the most influential voices in sports, said he could no longer announce boxing matches because of the brutality.

“Right now the NFL is in top, and they’ll be on top tomorrow,” Boyd said. “But will they be on top in 20 or 30 years? We can’t answer that question. We may be on the front end of people changing their opinions.

“The NFL is in a precarious moment.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.