Colin Kaepernick Has Forced the NFL to Face Its First Existential Crisis

The NFL and its burgeoning popularity have been virtually bulletproof for decades. Controversies that would have crippled lesser sports have barely registered as a blip on the NFL’s profit radar. Neither rashes of player arrests (for domestic violence and other assorted crimes), nor the increasing avalanche of evidence that NFL players are essentially sacrificing their long-term health for the sake of our bloodsport have in any way diminished fans’ desire to either show up to games or to watch them on TV.

Leave it to a guy on the tail end of a once-promising career to start a chain reaction that may well represent the worst PR disaster the NFL has ever faced. Colin Kaepernick’s protest, when it was a solo act, was just fodder for the talking heads on ESPN and FoxSports. But, in true sports player bandwagon fashion, it seems that Kaepernick’s protest is threatening to spread to the rest of the NFL, with numerous other players indicating that they plan to join in intentional disrespect to the national anthem, including the entire team of the Seattle Seahawks.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the NFL’s product is just simply so awesome and popular that people will tune in no matter what, but I think this crisis is different for the NFL. All the other scandals the NFL has faced over the years dealt with issues that didn’t make their way onto the field. Sure PacMan Jones has been arrested a billion times off the field, but when he steps onto it, he still contributes to an enjoyable on-field product. While you are watching teams play in three hour increments, it’s easy to forget all the off-field distractions, including the concussion issue.

This crisis, however, involves what fans will actually see when they come to games or tune into them on television. How will the vast majority of America react when they come to a game in person or watch one on TV and see that all the players are sitting or otherwise expressing disrespect during the national anthem? My guess is, “pretty badly.” My guess is, this kind of display will actually get people to stop buying tickets, or to turn their televisions off. If it’s one guy doing it, people will just hate on that one guy and he’ll be out of the league soon anyway. If it becomes a prominent occurrence featuring a majority – or even a significant minority – of all NFL players, people are going to start to write off the whole league.

If this trend continues, expect the NFL to take one of two paths to deal with this – and the path they choose will say a lot about how they truly feel about the concerns of their audience. The first, which would indicate that they legitimately care about the disgust their audience has with these displays, would be to start aggressively fining players for protesting during the national anthem. The NFL aggressively fines its players for absolutely asinine reasons all the time; instituting a policy of fining players for a legitimate reason that is bringing legitimate bad press on the sport as a whole would be relatively easy to implement and difficult for the union (which is mostly weak and ineffective anyway) to contest.

The second would be to just stop playing the national anthem before games, which would be the easier route to take in terms of player relations, and probably public relations as well. Just sweep the whole thing under the rug. Would people even notice if the national anthem was missing from the pregame? Probably not as much as they would notice players protesting it. If the NFL just wants to make this controversy quietly disappear, this will be the route they take, and it will show that the NFL truly is the most mercenary business enterprise in the world.

Either way, if this protest grows, the NFL will not be able to continue to ignore it. Unless, of course, we really are so addicted to their product that we love it more than our country. Which, based on the NFL’s TV ratings, might well be true.