To look at the news coverage, you’d think that the decisions of NFL players to take a knee, or sit, or stand at attention, during the playing of the National Anthem is the biggest news story in the world right now. President Trump had to weigh in on it — of course! — and Facebook and other forms of social media are on fire with discussion of various perspectives on the protests.
The reaction to the NFL protests shows the uniquely powerful role of symbols like flags and the National Anthem — which is why they provide a very effective platform for the exercise of First Amendment rights, and have served in that capacity at least since the ’60s, when students protesting the Vietnam War burned the flag and American sprinters raised their fists while the National Anthem played during a medal ceremony in the 1968 Olympics. If you want to provoke strong reactions and draw attention to your cause, you can hardly do better than taking action that can be interpreted as showing some form of disrespect when the American flag is being displayed or the National Anthem is played.
And yet, I can’t help but think that the coverage of the NFL protests is ridiculously disproportionate. Whether athletes who are being paid millions of dollars to play sports are standing, sitting, or kneeling during the National Anthem doesn’t really measure up on the importance scale with, say, the increasingly aggressive tone of communications about North Korea and the possibility of some kind of confrontation about it. Nor does it compare to the utter misery and loss that thousands of people are suffering in hurricane-ravaged areas, or for that matter whether the United States is ever going to actually tackle critical big-picture issues, like the ever-present deficit spending that threatens to cast us over the fiscal cliff.
I think the real reason people are paying so much attention to the NFL protests is precisely that it’s small stuff, relatively speaking. It’s easy to stake out a position on the protests, pro or con, on the social media engine of your choice, and there are lots of juicy side issues to explore — like whether the protests will hurt already declining NFL TV ratings, whether sports in America has become overly politicized, whether athletes will lose lucrative endorsement deals, and whether the focus of the protests has become hopelessly blurred when billionaire owners like Jerry Jones are joining in and taking a knee. It’s easy to discuss all of those topics — a lot easier than making sense out of the North Korean situation or discussing how America should respond to it.