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Volume 23 No. 8
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For NFL, which way forward?

Social initiatives planned, but some owners want the focus back on football

Should the NFL stick to sports?

Owners and others close to the sport are asking that question, and not just because of the anthem-connected player protests that have sparked a battle with President Donald Trump and put the league in the crosshairs with some of its most ardent fans.

The sentiment also revolves around an active league office signaling that it plans a number of new initiatives around social issues.

“Our focus is on working within the NFL family to raise awareness about equality and social justice,” the league’s executive vice president of communications, Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton White House press officer, told reporters last week. “Whatever you think about what has happened … people are more aware of these issues.

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“It’s our job at every level of the league to make sure that we use this for good.”

But that would mark a stark contrast for the traditionally conservative league and indicate a far more socially active agenda. And it comes as many ask what the purpose of the NFL is: To entertain by playing football games, or to use that as a platform to ease societal woes, from inequality to domestic violence?

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson hinted at where he stood in a statement, which in part read, “Politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who play it.” John Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback and Denver Broncos president of football operations, said, “Hopefully as we go forward we can begin concentrating on football a little bit more. Take the politics out of football.”

Some owners were already privately griping about the league’s expansive domestic violence effort. Many teams are concerned about the league’s expanding investigative arm and player punishment, in many cases after local law enforcement declined to press charges. And while with domestic violence the issues affect the image of the NFL and individual players, the macro concerns raised by players with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and now arguably supported by the league through Lockhart’s comments, are tied only thinly if at all to NFL business.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, players and city officials met in a visit mentioned by the NFL’s Joe Lockhart referencing owners’ commitment to players’ issues.

Other sources connected to ownership express similar sentiments, suggesting a potential split between an aggressive social justice push from the league, and team owners who believe the focus should return to the game. A split has already appeared in one way: Lockhart ruled out the NFL reaching out to Trump, while the president tweeted last Thursday that he had been in touch with NFL owners, one of whom is Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. The Cowboys declined to comment, but a source close to the team confirmed Jones and the president had spoken.

“There is commitment among all the owners,” Lockhart told reporters last week, “to working with players on issues that are important to them, including social justice.”

Lockhart declined to outline initiatives planned this month, except to say the league had worked on them for months. He did cite Commissioner Roger Goodell’s recent trip to Philadelphia to meet with players and police to discuss criminal justice reform as an example of the type of project the league might encourage.

Those who have worked with the sport for years warn whether the issue is kneeling for the anthem or expanding the league’s mission to encompass social justice projects favored by players, the NFL risks alienating fans who relish football as a reprieve.

Photo by: AP IMAGES
“Many look to sports as a break from the issues they deal with in their own world and in the world,” said Marc Ganis, a sports consultant who does business with the league. “As the problems of the world and society encroach actively or insistently on their sports, we may see some people turn off and tune out.”

John Tatum is a sports marketing executive whose clients include league sponsor Pepsi and who works frequently with the Dallas Cowboys. “Sports is unifying and the [NFL] shield is the epitome of that. Politics

Photo by: AP IMAGES
is a losers game,” said the politically active Tatum, a public supporter of Trump, suggesting there is no upside for a sports league to get involved in political messaging.

“I believe the NFL needs to steer far away from anything political or there will be damage to the brand and it runs the risk of alienating their base and core consumer,” Tatum said.

It’s unclear what effect the Trump dustups and new social justice

outreach will have on the league’s fortunes, but the demographic of the Trump voter and NFL fans do roughly align.

About 58 percent of Trump voters in 2016 were white, and 70 percent of NFL fans are white, according to Nielsen Research. Trump famously won voters who do not have a college degree, and according to Nielsen, only 29 percent of NFL fans have a four-year degree. In fact, Trump won more votes among whites without college degrees than any presidential candidate since at least 1980, suggesting his base neatly meshes with the NFL fan base. Trump’s voters are more male than female, as are NFL fans.

Trump’s skill at evoking a reaction has been evidenced in pictures of fans burning NFL merchandise and letters from fans dumping season tickets.

“The NFL makes me sick and I am done with it,” David Gregory, 69, a Green Bay Packers fan from Lake Mary, Fla., wrote in an email. “There is plenty of high school, college, and local football and other sports. The NFL, the commissioner? What a bunch of arrogant nobodies.”

While voices like those of Gregory and others did capture media attention, to date major cancellations of season tickets or plummeting TV ratings have not materialized.

Asked about fans who have expressed sentiments like Gregory’s, Lockhart replied last week, “For those who oppose what they saw last night, that’s their right, that’s their privilege. But it never has been about respect for the flag. What it is about is efforts to raise awareness to make progress on equality and social justice, and the NFL stands with those who speak to that and want to do that.”

Amy Trask, the former Oakland Raiders president, contended the league and teams should stop with the statements and instead invite fans into town hall meetings to debate and discuss the anthem issue.

“Part of the problem is people are framing it as sports or politics, but politics is a bad word,” she said. The teams should use the passion and unity they generate with fans, Trask said, to bring them together and talk through why players feel the need to kneel or protest during the anthem.

Whether the controversy recedes is anyone’s guess, and may hinge on the tweets from the White House. Will the Dallas Cowboys’ “Monday Night Football” model of kneeling before the anthem and locking arms work, or only locking arms?

Notably, November is designated as military appreciation month, so the league will need a strategy for dealing with player protesters during the anthem for those games. Some vets have spoken out in favor of the players. Those opposed cite flag-draped coffins of soldiers coming home from war zones, and then juxtapose that with kneeling players.

The league’s business partners have thus far remained quiet, either supportive of the league or convinced that the issue will dissipate. Sponsors have seen this show before, whether Ray Rice, bounties, Deflategate, or bullying. Every year seemingly brings a new crisis for the NFL. In each instance, predictions of a hit on NFL business proved erroneous as revenue grew.

Sponsors “think this is temporary,” said Mike Reisman of MKTG, whose agency represents NFL sponsors Visa and Mars. “They all think it is a moment in time that will just blow over.”

“I was speaking to one client,” he continued, “and she was saying that as much attention as the whole thing got, because of how polarized the country is right now, this is almost business as usual, which is kind of sad.”

Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this report.