I love Steve Kerr; I really do.
The outspokenly liberal, anti-Trumpian coach of the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors possesses a rare plainspoken wisdom, honed by physical pain and personal tragedy. When Steve Kerr talks, people properly listen.
But in admonishing the National Football League for its just-announced, revised policy to fine teams whose players take a knee during the national anthem, Coach Kerr misses the point.
“It’s just typical of the NFL,” Kerr said of the NFL’s revised policy, “Basically just trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism, scaring people. Our leadership in the NBA understands that the NFL players were kneeling to protest police brutality, to protest racial inequality. They weren’t disrespecting the flag.”
Nah, Sorry Steve, but in this case, you’re way off.
The NFL’s new policy, in fact, moves precisely in the direction that any smart public relations advisor would suggest.
The problem is, it comes two years too late.
The time to confront the issue of what to do about players taking a knee during the anthem should have been confronted the day soon-to-be-disenfranchised quarterback Colin Kaepernick first assumed the position during San Francisco 49ers 2016 preseason games.
But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the bumbling billionaires who own the 32 NFL teams couldn’t quite get their act together in terms of what to do about the Kaepernick protest.
So, Commissioner Goodell — who must have been a kicker in high school because he’s always punting! — did just that. He punted the pigskin down the road by wishy-washily declaring that players “should” stand for the anthem and that it would be left to each team to handle its kneeling players however they deemed appropriate.
Predictably, some players rebelled, some owners complained, others rolled over and President Trump got into the act by squawking vociferously. All of which led to the fateful day of September 24, 2017 — forever to be known as “dark Sunday” in NFL history — when 200 NFL players sat or kneeled before their games for all the world to see.
Just as it had fumbled sexual harassment and concussion brain damage scandals before this, so, too, in the Kaepernick case, the NFL’s crisis management ineptitude resulted in planting the league knee-deep in a kneeling crisis.
What the league should have done at the time is what Mr. Kerr’s NBA did; that is, meet with the players, suggest to them that protesting the national anthem would send the absolute wrong message — whether rightly or wrongly — to the people who pay for their inflated salaries and jointly agree to mandate that every player “must” stand when the American flag is raised.
Meanwhile, the league would contribute to and speak out for racial equality in multiple forums. League leaders LeBron James, Chris Paul, Steph Curry and their colleagues quickly fell in line behind the policy. And the NBA and its public relations-savvy Commissioner Adam Silver shimmied right by the controversy.
Not so the NFL, which finds itself still mired in crisis two excruciating years later. So much so that as soon as Commissioner Goodell had announced the new kneeling policy, the NFL Players Association criticized it for not taking the players’ views into consideration and threatened to challenge it in court.
And if that wasn’t enough, Chris Johnson, clueless co-owner of the hapless New York Jets, announced that even though he voted for the new rule to penalize kneeling players — rather than making objecting players stand in the tunnel during the anthem — “If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players.”
Oy, oy, oy.
Although his overall take on the NFL’s new policy was fundamentally flawed, Steve Kerr did say one thing, in summarizing the league’s history of crisis management, with which no one can quibble.
Concluded the coach, “That’s how the NFL has conducted their business. It’s idiotic.”
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 13th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.”