“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
AS 3.5 MILLION AMERICANS languished without power in Puerto Rico this weekend, President Donald Trump turned his attention instead to NFL players who had decided to take a knee during the national anthem to protest injustice, bigotry, and police brutality in the U.S.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” the president bellowed at a rally for a special election in Alabama. The owners who fired players, Trump said, would quickly be among the most popular men in America.
Trump directed some of the harshest words of his presidency not at ascendant neo-Nazis or even opposition politicians, but peaceful NFL stars, many of them black, taking a knee to bring attention to a cause they care about deeply. What makes this so unique is that it wasn’t a Joe Biden hot mic moment: It was an intentional attack on free speech.
The NFL has to say something because the league backed this president, and he returned the favor by using the NFL’s struggles as a form of political currency while stoking his base in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday night.
Lest anyone forget, the NFL bought part of this. It bought part of Trump. And not just a smattering of owners, either. We’re talking about the league itself.
The product is worse. But the Super Bowl was better than ever.
If you have a strong NFL viewership opinion, wait a day. It will shift, or someone will tell you how wrong you are. This is the NFL’s most consistent theme in 2017: everything is an eye-gouging argument over why the audience is changing. And the ratings, well, that’s the seesaw the league will be forced to ride all season long.
Through two weeks, nothing is certain and nobody is sure what is causing numbers to land where they are. And through two weeks there has been a perpetual argument over why the TV results are up and down. The most dominant questions: Why is the league’s growth and saturation slowing, who or what is to blame, and how will it be fixed?
It’s why people can’t talk about Kaepernick or player activism without weaving in a ratings conversation. It’s why domestic violence and league discipline can’t be dissected without considering how it impacts image and viewership. And it’s most definitely why the NFL and NFLPA will continue to brutalize each other for the next four years, running up a scoreboard of who is to blame for what problem, and how that is negatively impacting the overall product the two sides produce in unison.
Colin Kaepernick’s protest movement rolled on without him on Sunday, as his college fraternity marched in Detroit and players around the NFL sat or knelt during the national anthem.
Kaepernick remains unsigned after opting out of his contract with the 49ers. His supporters believe he’s being punished for protesting police brutality by refusing to stand during the national anthem last season.
About 50 members of the Kappa Alpha Psi alumni chapter in Detroit marched in a peaceful protest that ended just outside Ford Field, where the Lions hosted the Arizona Cardinals. “When you look at some of the recent incidents like what happened to Michael Bennett in Las Vegas, it validates the stance that Colin Kaepernick has taken,” said Eric Brown, a former president of the fraternity’s alumni chapter in Detroit.
Announcer Beth Mowins walks on the field before a 2015 NFL preseason football game between the Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams in Oakland, Calif.
Play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins is set to become the first-ever female broadcaster to call an NFL game televised nationally.
A commentator for ESPN since 1994, she’ll call the Los Angeles Chargers vs. Denver Broncos game in ESPN’s opening Monday Night Football doubleheader on Sept. 11. Former Buffalo Bills and New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan will join her.
“Beth has been an important voice in our college sports coverage and she has experience calling NFL preseason games. She deserves this opportunity,” Stephanie Druley, ESPN events and studio production senior vice president, said in a statement. “ESPN is committed to putting talented women in high-profile positions and we look forward to Beth and Rex’s call of this game on our MNF opening night.”
Mowins “typically does play-by-play at the college level for women’s sports, but has plenty of experience calling college football games,” writes SBNation. She has also called Oakland Raiders preseason games since 2015, and recently signed a multiyear extension with ESPN.
“This is an amazing opportunity and I look forward to working with Rex and our entire ESPN team. As lifelong fans of the NFL Monday Night Football franchise, we want to bring the same passion to the broadcast as our predecessors have all done,” Mowins said in a statement.
She is not the first woman to call an NFL regular season game. That was Gayle Sierens, who in 1987 called a regional NBC broadcast of a Seahawks-Chiefs game.
But she told the newspaper that “the management at her local NBC station did not want her to call more games the next season. They made it clear that she had a choice: work for NBC, essentially part time, or continue as a full-time news anchor.” Sierens chose the latter, and had a long and successful career as a news anchor at WFLA-TV in Tampa.
Thirty years then passed before ESPN announced Mowins’ assignment.
What was happening? Everyone had an explanation. Some said it was the referees, who were blowing calls and spoiling the games. Or it was the networks, which were showing too many commercials. One line of argument suggested that, because the teams were employing increasingly younger players to save money, the level of play was suffering. Or maybe the viewership numbers weren’t accounting for cord-cutters, who were streaming games online. Or were millennials too busy watching Netflix? Maybe everyone simply missed Peyton Manning, who retired last year.
The most popular argument—the one favored by the N.F.L. itself—involved politics. League executives argued that the Presidential campaign was drawing viewers away. The ratings, they predicted, would rebound after Election Day. And they did, thanks in large part to a popular slate of games on Thanksgiving and a large number of prime-time games featuring the resurgent Dallas Cowboys, long known as “America’s team.” But as the Web site Awful Announcing, among others, has pointed out, ratings in the second half of a season are always higher than in the first—and the N.F.L.’s strong second-half numbers this year were not enough to erase its rough start.
Still, even if the election wasn’t really to blame, the ideas and divisions that Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s campaigns laid bare seeped into fans’ discussions—and complaints—about the N.F.L. Some conservative fans argued that Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco’s quarterback, and the other players who were protesting during the national anthem had driven flag-loving Americans away. Others said that the sport had been softened to appease squeamish fans. Liberals, meanwhile, suggested that fans might finally have been turned off by the brutality of the game, and the N.F.L.’s slow response to the concussion crisis. There was talk that basketball, with its “young, diverse and tech savvy” fans, would one day usurp football as the national sport.
This politicization produced its share of incongruous moments and odd allies. The liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg called Kaepernick’s protest “dumb and disrespectful.” (She later apologized.) On live television the night before the election, Trump read a letter of support he’d received from Bill Belichick, the head coach of the Patriots—a no-nonsense guy whom you’d expect to kick a player off his team for tweeting about politics. “You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter,” Trump said, reading the note. “Your leadership is amazing.” Suddenly, the N.F.L.’s big tent—where all the players look more or less alike under their helmets, and fans find common cause in matching jerseys and face paint—felt claustrophobic. An article on Bleacher Report stated that the Buffalo Bills locker room had been roiled by arguments over the election—especially after the team’s head coach at the time, Rex Ryan, spoke at a Trump rally. “Some of the African-American players on the team weren’t happy about Rex doing that,” an unnamed player said. Meanwhile, Trump supporters on the team were wary of speaking their minds, lest they be judged as racist.