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Column: NFL builds tower of irony with new national anthem policy

Exit velocity has to be my favorite new statistic in baseball.

Following a home run, game announcers will now customarily follow up with reports of pitch speed and how fast the ball bounced off the bat. It’s not enough to just see the ball fly out of the park. We have to know it was a 95-mph fastball that ricocheted off the sweet spot going 13​2!

​You also soon can expect​ new football statistics and catchphrases to spill out of ​your TV speakers and soundbars but for an entirely different reason.​

I know … right when​ we’re ​so​ used to NFL game commentators sounding like attorneys when explaining how video replay evidence must be irrefutable ​and catches by receivers must “survive the ground” (I’m still foggy on that one), ​the league recently has introduced something that definitely will ​be tracked with cameras and stats.

The NFL’s newly announced policy requiring all players to be on the field before the game and standing when the national anthem is played undoubtedly will bring about new “tunnel entrance cams” that track which players take the league’s option of staying in the locker room during the anthem, instead of standing on the sidelines.

And you can bet there will be quick, on-screen lists of players who are not on the field during the anthem. Sideline reporters will chime in on the pre-game drama about who stayed off the field and who may have took a knee during the anthem and defied the league in the process.

I want to look at this issue beyond the many strong opinions on whether professional athletes, who take a knee during the anthem, are disrespecting our country and our flag. I’m not trying to make a point on either side of that argument.

What I do want to point out is the tower of irony the NFL has built with its new policy.

A professional sports league consisting of 32 organizations and built on the foundation of teamwork now is backing a policy that drives an emotional wedge between teammates — dividing those who regularly stand for the anthem and others who choose to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality by not participating.

How can any organization install a policy requiring teammates to do one thing but also tack on a non-participation option that will immediately shine a controversial spotlight on those teammates choosing not to follow along?

In effect, the NFL is setting up players who either choose to stay in the locker room or take a knee during the anthem to be the focal point of more fan ridicule, taunting or, perhaps, abhorrent public reactions, which could imperil the safety of players and their families.

At a public appearance in Alabama last year, the President of the United States said any pro football player who chooses to exercise their freedom of expression by kneeling during the anthem should be fired, saying how an NFL owner should “get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”

And when asked about his reaction to the NFL’s new policy in a recent TV interview, the President went even further by saying that if players don’t agree with the new rule, they then shouldn’t be allowed in the country.

Perhaps the NFL is trying to appease the President and many of its owners with its new anthem policy?

But not all of them are on board.

New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson has said he will pay league fines for players who choose to be on the field during the anthem and not stand.

Bears owner George McCaskey responded by trying to walk a political tightrope, saying he supports all players on the field standing for the anthem as a moment of unity, but understand​s​ the feelings of players who choose to stay in the locker room.

Don’t be surprised if entire teams preserve their unity by staying in the locker room during the anthem, which is what the Pittsburgh Steelers did before their game last season against the Bears at Soldier Field.

For what it’s worth, I stand for the national anthem, hat off and hand over heart every time I’m at a sporting event. But I don’t see everyone else doing the same.

I’ve been in the starting corral for plenty of running races, where people often keep their hats on, talk with friends or get in some last-minute stretching while not paying any attention as someone sings the anthem into a microphone at the start line.

I was also at a recent Cubs game, where plenty of people in the stands at Wrigley Field kept tapping out texts on their phones or stood with their hats still on as singer Joey Belladonna, of the heavy metal band Anthrax, belted out the Star-Spangled Banner.

So, how far are we going to go in identifying behaviors during the national anthem that can be viewed as disrespectful?

Will the focus only be on pro football players because they’re the popular topic right now? Or are TV cameras going to swing around and show others not fully engaged in paying respect to all those who fight and have fought for our freedoms?

For the NFL, the true test will be whether this new policy helps bolster team unity or creates such a distraction of political divisiveness among players that it may require a new statistic — an exit velocity tracker measuring how fast players head into the locker room.

But the exit measurement that really will make the NFL take notice is whether a growing number of fans get turned off and tune out over what the league is or isn’t doing to bring everyone together.

Eric Scott is a freelance columnist for Pioneer Press.


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