Opinion: NFL Should Follow NCAA on National Anthem

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The Virginian - Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)


Can we all agree that college football is more fun to watch than the NFL?

And not just because the pros are filled with grown men grinding for a paycheck, while most college players are barely out of their teens and prone to both crazy mistakes and brilliant plays.

Sure, college teams in the Power Five are sprinkled with freaky athletes who have taken cash and swag under the table, but there are plenty of absolute amateurs: players who were overlooked in high school and guys simply playing a sport they love, knowing they'll never go pro.

Shoot, you didn't have to be a Clemson fan to find yourself cheering for Cinderella wide receiver Hunter Renfrew in last January's national championship win over Alabama. The Myrtle Beach native joined the Tigers as an undersized walk-on, only to become the star of the best team in college football.

There's another reason to prefer the NCAA over the NFL right now: The relative absence of politics and protests.

At many college games, the national anthem is played while the players are still in the locker room. This has been the case for many years and apparently has to do with television schedules and the need to be ready to kick off at the precise moment the cameras blink on.

I thought of that last Saturday night as I stood in the stands at Cal Berkeley. The players for both teams were off the field when the marching band began to play "The Star-Spangled Banner." I saw thousands of football fans in this left-leaning oasis proudly wearing "Cal" jerseys, with their hands over their hearts, warbling the lyrics loudly and off-key just like fans everywhere.

It was a beautiful moment.

So why don't NFL owners adopt the same schedule?

Play the anthem while the players are in the tunnel. That way team members aren't pressured to stand. And ticket holders are spared the spectacle of players kneeling.

Problem solved.

By now even those who don't know a tailback from a touchback are aware that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee during the anthem last season. That attention-grabbing act, by a player whose career was already in a slump, ignited other protests with players on various teams sitting or kneeling during the anthem as fans fumed in the stands.

As I wrote last year, Kaepernick had a right to his nonviolent protest, just as some of us had a right to call his behavior rude.

Look, politics are everywhere. And most of what passes for politics is ugly.

Football is where some of us go to escape.

We don't want to be lectured or drawn into divisive debates while there, whether the instigators are players, owners, announcers, or quite frankly, the president of the United States.

In a red meat speech at a political rally for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Luther Strange in Alabama on Friday night, President Donald Trump foolishly waded into the NFL controversy. He suggested that the protests would end if fans simply walked out every time players fell to their knees during the anthem.

What, and miss the game, Mr. President? Those season tickets cost big bucks. Plus, people love football.

The president urged owners to fire protesting players.

"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,' " Trump intoned, launching yet another controversy.

Our bombastic president is partly right, owners can hire or fire players at will - depending on their clauses in their contracts, that is. But by popping off about the issue, Trump virtually guaranteed that the protests will continue.

And spread.

Look, standing for the national anthem is simply a sign of respect and affection for our imperfect nation. It doesn't suggest agreement with everything going on in the country.

If it did, no one would stand.

Instead of kicking protesters off them team as Trump urged, owners should urge their players to follow their consciences. Tell them that they're free to stand, sit or kneel.

In the locker room.

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September 24, 2017


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