How the NFL anthem controversy (mostly) missed Pennsylvania

Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In the early fall of 2016, shortly after then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began his kneeling protest during the National Anthem at his team’s games, I overheard a particularly animated discussion between a couple of dads at one of my kids’ sporting events. The reaction of these suburban Philadelphia dads, neither of whom I know, was … let’s say less than positive.

Soccer Dad #1 shared some (mis)-information about how Kaepernick had converted to Islam, and that the whole protest thing had actually been his girlfriend’s idea. Soccer Dad #2 questioned why Kaepernick, with his newfound social conscience, hadn’t personally gone to Louisiana to help out with the floods that were raging there at time. Then Soccer Dad #1 made a declaration.

“I swear, if anyone on the Eagles pulls anything like that, and the team doesn’t stop him, I will never go to another Eagles game ever again!”

Over a year later, the NFL anthem controversy has grown to the point where it has brought the culture wars to pro football. It has put NFL players at odds with their bosses and a whole lot of conservative-leaning fans — up to and including the President of the United States. It’s a major headache that the NFL would clearly like to see go away as quickly as possible.

In the conservative imagination, the anthem protests have led NFL stadiums to empty out, TV ratings to plunge, expensive jerseys to be burned en masse, and fans to vow in droves that they will never watch another football game again. This, more than anything else, has put a serious dent in the popularity of a league that looked practically invincible as recently as three or four years ago.

Winning has a way of making fans look the other way from major political disagreements.

First of all, this calamity is overstated. Yes, NFL ratings have declined, and the anthem controversy may be partly to blame — but so are many other factors, from a glut of bad teams, to an abnormally large amount of injuries, to a general fragmenting over time of the American television audience. Yet NFL games still remain among the highest-rated programs on TV, and the league is still hugely profitable. The “empty stadiums” are mostly empty for other reasons; those empty seats in San Francisco almost certainly have a lot more to do with the team being bad for four straight years and moving to a stadium an hour away from San Francisco than anything having to do with Colin Kaepernick. And the Cleveland Browns’ attendance problems are probably more about the team’s 0-12 record than the large contingent of kneeling Browns players.

But there’s one place where the anthem controversy hasn’t seemed to hurt the NFL at all: Pennsylvania. The state’s two NFL teams — both based in traditional blue-collar towns, in a state won by Trump in 2016 — remain popular as ever, with stadiums full and TV ratings high.

Why is this? For one thing, the Eagles and Steelers are always among the most popular, durable, and obsessed-over teams in football, so they’re going to sell out every game no matter what. But this year they’re both championship contenders, tied among the teams with the best record in the NFL at 10-2. Winning has a way of making fans look the other way from major political disagreements.

And it’s not like players there haven’t protested.

In Philadelphia, safety Malcolm Jenkins led a group of African American Eagles players who, starting early in the 2016 season, began raising a single fist during each game’s playing of the anthem in the tradition of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power protest at the 1968 Olympics. Jenkins later emerged as a leader in the “Players Coalition” that recently negotiated a nine-figure donation by NFL teams to social justice causes. Jenkins has also gone on police ride-alongs and testified in Harrisburg in favor of criminal justice reform, and on Thursday was named the Eagles’ nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.

The Eagles have been dubbed “Woke Warriors” by Bleacher Report columnist Michael Tanier — but it doesn’t appear that even the most conservative Eagles fans mind, if it means a return to the Super Bowl.

Sure, Jenkins has drawn some blowback for recently announcing plans to end his protest. But it doesn’t appear many fans are angry enough at him, whether for starting the protest or ending it, to develop any significant bad will towards his team or league — much less stop watching or going to the games. Jenkins is a popular player, known for his hard-nosed play and leadership, and his role in the anthem protests hasn’t done anything to dissipate the cheers for him.

You also might think there’s a chance politics could divide the team. While a large contingent of the team is involved in progressive causes, local columnist Les Bowen reported last year that all but one or two of the white players on the Eagles voted for Donald Trump. But no such divide has emerged, at least not in any public way.

In a preseason game this August, the week after a Nazi sympathizer killed a woman in Charlottesville, a white Eagles player and Charlottesville native, Chris Long, put his arm around Jenkins during the anthem in solidarity, as he would continue to do for weeks afterward. On September 24, the week after President Trump bashed protesting NFL players as “sons of bitches,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie locked arms with players and appeared to make a point of standing near Jenkins as he raised his fist.

If there’s been any major fan backlash in Philadelphia against the actions of Jenkins or his teammates, I haven’t seen it. The city’s two sports talk radio stations, which are normally a window into the overwhelmingly white, male, blue-collar id of local sports enthusiasts, have mostly ignored the topic over the course of the last two seasons in favor of rapturous praise for the Eagles and their young quarterback Carson Wentz. There was a minor brouhaha early in the season over Lurie decrying the hypothetical idea of signing Kaepernick, but that turned out to be based on a misleading piece by a local columnist.

Pennsylvania’s other NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, made news on that same afternoon of September 24 when the entire team stayed in the locker room during the anthem, except for one player, former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva, who stood outside the tunnel.

But the disagreements soon died out, with numerous Steelers players and management stating by early October that they wanted to move beyond the controversy. If there’s anything controversial about the Steelers now, it more likely involves that egregiously violent, cheap-shot-filled game against Cincinnati last Monday night.

I haven’t talked to that soccer dad about whether he stuck with his pledge to forever disavow the Eagles, but I’m guessing he probably didn’t. That’s because, well, fans have a tendency not to honor to their no-football pledges, no matter the reason: whether it’s anthem protests, concussions, or the Eagles’ 2009 signing of convicted dog killer Michael Vick. The power of football – and winning — is such that fans seem to always come back.

The NFL may not have “stuck to sports.” But fans, at least in Pennsylvania, certainly have.