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Is the “ESPN-ization” of the NFL Reversible?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

As Roger Goodell attempts these next few days to not only save his job but ask for a raise and luxurious perks amid NFL ratings that are plummeting even further into the abyss, undoubtedly many football fans across the country are wondering if our recent national trend towards the hyper-politicization of everything is here to stay.

When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling last summer during the national anthem during football games, claiming that he was doing it to protest what he believed was the oppression of people of color, it caused a sharply divisive uproar across the country that has now snowballed into the persistent anthem controversies we’ve been seeing this season.

Though it may initially seem this was the first step towards the NFL going the way of ESPN’s transformation from a sports network to a quasi-political talk show, in fact the NFL has slowly been edging towards this state of affairs for years.  

From Tim TeBow being reprimanded for praying on the field before games to the NFL preventing the Dallas Cowboys from wearing decals to show support for the fallen police officers in Dallas last year, the NFL has seen a variety of polarizing cultural issues begin to spoil what is a defining and unifying American pastime.

After weeks of extraordinarily disruptive protests earlier this fall, Goodell finally decided to attempt to put an end to the controversy by subtly encouraging players to stand for the anthem. Not only did that fail as the kneeling and protests by players continue even now amid the ratings decline, but it seems that this may be the new normal for both professional football and many other aspects of our culture. 

Football holds a special place in the American civic spirit. Within itself, it is an exciting sport where athletic prowess and teamwork combine to create a formidable game of skill. However with our culture, it has consistently remained by far the most watched sport in the US and, as a distinctly American sport, remains a symbol of our country’s distinction and pride. 

It is now deeply tragic that it has become another political “football,” so to speak, in the increasingly divisive culture wars we’ve been seeing as of late in our country.

The fact remains that both sides of the dispute have a case on the merits.

It is, after all, disrespectful to kneel to a flag that represents the noble American ideals of liberty, equality, and justice for all, and that has been preserved through the sacrifices of so many hundreds of thousands of Americans over the course of our history.

Furthermore, it is true that there remain great inequities in criminal justice, law enforcement, and economic opportunity for various groups of Americans that need to be addressed.

However, the NFL is not the place to address these deeply complex and serious policy issues – it is a place to play and watch football.

Furthermore, by bringing these issues into a forum as unsuited for their resolution as NFL games, with little substantive discussion as compared to preaching-to-the-choir performances, these questions become far more difficult to properly address.

It seems at the moment that Roger Goodell is likely to continue his term as NFL Commissioner. While undoubtedly there was perhaps only so much he could do given the titanic cultural forces driving these political controversies into our popular culture, hopefully his next few years as commissioner will see better resolution of these issues than the past few.

The NFL disturbances also seem less a cause of our current cultural divide but rather a symptom and accelerator of it. When our divisive political climate simmers down, undoubtedly it will too.

Perhaps in the future us and our descendants will look back at this time as a disappointing era where we let our minor differences and what could be polite disagreements spiral into vitriol and cultural antagonism. 

In the meantime, it seems that the politicization of even previously mundane aspects of our daily lives continues. The current NFL kneeling protests show no signs of abating, as the social ripples spread and accelerate beyond any person’s control. Whether the NFL can truly prosper let alone survive amid this remains to be seen. 

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