The NFL as a whole would prefer to have its players standing at attention during the national anthem, with no more player protests. For some owners, that's a patriotic gesture. For others, it's simply business. Mostly, though, NFL owners just really want this whole anthem/protest controversy to go away.
That's why it's so bizarre that the league has instead managed to make it infinitely worse.
The NFL knows it too, which is probably why Commissioner Roger Goodell remained so silent when President Donald Trump and the Philadelphia Eagles managed to turn the traditional visit to the White House by the Super Bowl champs into a political football earlier this week. Most of the Eagles weren't planning to go, so the president loudly cancelled the event.
Of course, somehow it became about the national anthem again -- complete with Fox News showing pictures of Eagles praying after games, making it seem as if they were kneeling during the anthem instead. And it's not going to stop, because the president sees this is a winning issue for him and an easy way to rile up his base. He also knows he has the NFL running scared.
The proof of that was in the league's wishy-washy, oddly vague new rules about the playing of the national anthem, which they made two weeks ago. After a season in which the protests began to dwindle and players began to focus on the countless hours and millions they spend working in their communities, the NFL decided to wade into the anthem mine field again. They made a rule allowing players to remain in the locker room for the anthem -- a protest the president has already loudly Tweeted he doesn't accept -- but requiring them to stand and "be respectful," in the words of Goodell, if they are on the field when the anthem is played.
But what does "be respectful" even mean? It's just a supposed compromise with no actual spine. What if a player raises a fist? What if he scratches himself during the song? What if during the last line he begins dancing in place, or running on the sideline or kneeling in prayer (not protest) as many have done throughout the years? What if a coach has his hands in his pockets instead of over his heart? What if someone talks instead of sings?
One of the most emotional performances of the anthem ever came at Madison Square Garden in 1994 prior to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals when the Rangers crowd screamed and cheered so loudly it completely drowned out the late John Amirante. It was an amazing, spine-tingling moment, even for non-Rangers fans. In hindsight, was screaming over the words "respectful?" Do we have to look at that differently now?
Where is the line? And who sets it? Will it be Goodell or the hard-line owners? What about more moderate NFL owners, like the Jets' Christopher Johnson, who has offered to pay any fines the team incurs for anthem-related protests by his players? Or inevitably, will it be set and reset by a Tweet from President Trump?
That's the rabbit hole the NFL has gone down and until the line is established, the controversy will rage. Maybe the NFL did this because there's a divide in ownership. Some seem to legitimately want their players to stand for the anthem. Some sound like they just want to control the players. Some want to work with them and even appear to support the cause of the protesters. Maybe all of them are far more concerned with protecting their still-growing, $14 billion per year industry from a small segment of angry fans.
But whatever the reason, they've avoided taking a strong, coherent stand.
Meanwhile, there was an easy one they could've taken. They could've taken the high road and reclaimed the debate and their game. They could've offered a collective empathy to the protesting players instead of creating an ill-conceived rule. They could have issued a strong statement to highlight the players' cause (social equality and stopping police brutality), to promote the countless hours and dollars so many of them spend giving back to their communities, and to insist that's where everyone's focus should be. They could've punted the political football back at the White House and avoided the debate entirely by keeping teams in the locker rooms while the anthem is played.
Then they could've gotten back to their most important business -- making more money. Instead, they chose to muddy the waters, lest they be painted as unpatriotic. The end result is the NFL let itself be bullied into an untenable situation, just a few months after it looked like the protests were dwindling and that the players were finding other ways to make their points and make a difference, too.
Whatever happens next -- and something will happen -- it's another self-inflicted wound for the NFL. President Trump, a long-time wannabe NFL owner, is now owning the league on this issue. And no matter what the players do next, the national anthem is destined to be a season-long issue again.