Patriotism and Bad PR

The national anthem kneeling crisis escalated further Sunday when Vice President Mike Pence demonstrated his viewpoint by walking out on an Indianapolis Colts home game. There are claims of staging, theatrics and planned performances showing up all over the internet. I don’t know, but I will say that when I was working for the executive branch in Washington, most presidential and vice-presidential trips were thoroughly researched by advance staff, with a plan of action set in place.

Did the vice president know, with a high degree of certainty, that some NFL players would take a knee? Almost certainly.

Does it matter that he knew what was coming? Not really.

In fact, it appears that President Trump was encouraging this behavior in order to further highlight the administration’s objection to highly paid professional athletes performing “disrespectful” actions during the mandatory pre-game national anthem. Many proponents of kneeling or sitting would suggest it’s a First Amendment issue. Freedom of speech is central to American democracy. Freedom of expression is our way of life. However, when you sign a contract that puts your personal freedoms and behaviors in the national spotlight, it does impact how your actions may be viewed by the NFL, opposing teams and fans. After all, the players’ rule book for acceptable behavior is extensive, spelling out a personal code of conduct that is expected of NFL players. This certainly has an impact on player behavior.

For a while, it looked as though the issue would settle down. A new trend emerged as players locked arms in a show of unity, which was certainly less objectionable and obtrusive than kneeling in a group setting. However, it must not have been enough of a statement because kneeling is back in the picture, and the NFL seems to be in a no-win situation. In that sense, Vice President Pence’s possibly staged walkout seems to be more of a comment aimed at those attempting to corral this run-away situation than any individual on the 49ers.

What would be a winning public relations strategy in this situation?

First off, there is no general agreement among NFL leadership or players about what to do, if anything. Some coaches and owners have been very public about their not-so-subtle thoughts on the matter. Several owners have suggested that anyone taking a knee would not play and maybe even be let go. That’s tough talk. Some coaches have sided with protesting players and even joined with them in protest.

To look at the public relations aspects of this is to examine the long-term reputation damage that may ensue. There are a lot of people, especially card-carrying NFL supporters, who are disgusted by what they believe to be disrespect of our nation and its symbols. I believe these individuals make up a much larger percentage of the fan base than those suggesting that kneeling is acceptable behavior. Nevertheless, a public relations fix to this will require all warring factions to sit down and hammer out a compromise.

What? Compromise?

Yep. If leadership and players don’t talk turkey soon, the league’s brand will suffer even more damage. The NFL has a tremendous track record of supporting our troops and military. A very solid record. Players feel frustrated at all levels. Fans are shaking their collective heads over millionaire athletes dissing the flag. NFL leadership would just like to see this all go away.

To continue on this path of divisiveness and disaster will not serve players, the league or the public well. Leadership – strong leadership – must be shown. No one wins if this continues.

I remember when the MLB went on strike for an extended period of time. Now, that was a disaster. I’m not sure how long it took for baseball to recover, if it ever did, but there are some real lessons there. And it has nothing to do with the vice president walking out on a game.

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