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Volume 21 No. 34
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NFL sponsors cite impact of anthem protests

Anheuser-Busch has received so many calls about its sponsorship of the NFL and its teams following the national anthem controversy that the beermaker now has a special prompt on its customer-service telephone line for customers calling to complain.

The developments come as Papa John’s last week became the first NFL sponsor to publicly criticize the league’s handling of the anthem-related protests. The NFL is not requiring players to stand during the anthem.

A-B has not gone that far, but a spokesman for the brewer said that, as “a result of the volume of calls we were receiving,” the company created a specific line for the queries.

“At Anheuser-Busch, we have a long heritage of supporting the nation’s armed forces, veterans and military dependents,” states the message, which callers hear after pushing the first of seven prompts on the customer-service line. “The national anthem is a point of pride for our company, and for the 1,100 veterans that we employ. Please feel free to share your feedback after the tone.”

The NFL has previously confirmed sponsors have been in touch to voice concerns about negative fan reactions to players kneeling during the anthem.

On an earnings call last week, Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter confirmed SportsBusiness Journal’s earlier report that his company had voiced displeasure to the NFL over the anthem issue. On an earnings call, Schnatter blasted NFL leadership. The company’s sales were up 1 percent for the quarter.

Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter has said the NFL’s handling of anthem protests has cost him business.
Schnatter contributed to the 2016 campaign of President Donald Trump, who on Sept. 22 blasted the league for allowing players to kneel during the anthem.

The NFL declined to comment on Schnatter’s criticism. Papa John’s has been a league sponsor since 2010.

The anthem-related player protests and whether to extend Commissioner Roger Goodell’s contract were the prime topics on a recent conference call, arranged by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for 16 other owners. But other concerns were discussed, sources said, including perceived high staffing costs at 345 Park Ave., in addition to the TV rating and attendance struggles in Los Angeles.

While reports have suggested Jones might seek to oust Goodell before his new contract is signed, no one contacted by SportsBusiness Journal thought that was likely.

What could happen, the sources agreed, is if the contract process is strung out long enough and becomes contentious, Goodell himself could walk.

His contract runs through 2019, and a five-year extension was nearly done before the anthem-related protests blew up after Trump’s comments. Some owners, sources said, think that Goodell could have stopped the controversy last year and ordered Colin Kaepernick to stand after he wore socks depicting police officers as pigs. Kaepernick was the first player to protest, sitting and then kneeling during the anthem starting in last year’s preseason to bring attention to the issue of police brutality.

Unease over the L.A. situation also festers among owners. Before the January 2016 decision to relocate the St. Louis Rams, Goodell long said the league could not afford to get L.A. wrong. But that appears to have happened, at least in the short term, with two teams now in the market flailing for attention.

Amy Trask, former president of the Oakland Raiders, cautioned, however, that until the Rams and Chargers move into the new Inglewood stadium in 2020, owners should not overreact. The Chargers moved earlier this year after exercising an option that owners approved hastily as part of the Rams’ decision.

As for Goodell’s relationship with owners, Trask said it is always a delicate balance between working for them and telling them what to do.

“I have a vivid recollection of … an owners’ meeting during the period Paul Tagliabue was commissioner, during which one team owner stood up and as he loomed over a seated Tagliabue, pointed at him emphatically and repeatedly as he said, ‘Hey, pal, you work for me,’” Trask recalled.

“He was correct — sort of. The league is comprised of and owned by 32 organizations, and every single league employee is an employee of those 32 organizations. As such, consensus among those owners — or coalition building between and among them — will dictate if and to what extent any changes are made.”

At least as far as it comes to the commissioner’s future and how to handle the anthem protests, consensus has not yet arrived.