The owners of the National Football League finally came up with a playbook of their own. Beset by players who want to be political commentators who work from their knees, and by angry fans who only want to watch a football game without insult to the country they love, the owners consulted their playbook and think they can run out the clock.
Surely there’s a quarterbacks coach somewhere who could give an owner a useful tip: “Uh, chief, running out the clock only works if you’re ahead. You’re trailing by two touchdowns.”
Some owners want to try to satisfy the fans, who pay the bills (and the salaries of ungrateful players) and buy the tickets and, more important, the beer, razor blades, automobiles, toothpaste and other good stuff that make a modern National Football League possible.
The owners met in Gotham this week to reassure each other that the declining attendance and sinking television ratings are nothing to worry about. The optimists among them insist that the stands are still full of fans, even if thousands of them are successfully disguised as empty seats.
“The rules are fine the way they are,” says Shad Kahn, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He thinks forcing the players to stand for the flag and the national anthem would not be “appropriate.” Harvey Weinstein’s behavior as director of the casting couch was not “appropriate.” Bill Clinton’s pursuit of oral sex in the White House was not “appropriate.” Genghis Khan (no kin to the owner of the Jaguars) and his rape and pillage was not “appropriate.”
But Mr. Khan — the Jaguars owner, not the ancient pillager — is right, it’s not the responsibility of the owners to teach their players the things they should have learned at mama’s knee: “You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” and you have the right to think the nation that protects and nurtures you is trash but any marketing man would tell you to keep your mouth shut and your knee off the grass until a linebacker or a free safety puts it there.
Besides, if the players only stand for the flag and the anthem because they’re told to do it, what they’re showing is not respect but grudging obedience to the men who sign their paychecks. What kind of respect is that?
The owners obviously feel between the rock, the righteous anger of the fans, and the hard place, the meaty heads of 270-pound monsters of the midway. The owners, who understand what the players don’t, are nevertheless reluctant to offend either the help, as clueless as the help might be, and the fans who pay the freight.
Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the league, says the players “should stand” but not “must stand.” The 32 clubs of the league “believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem. It’s an important policy of the game. It’s important to honor our flag and our country and I think our fans expect that.”
But the players have demonstrated that the fans cannot expect that, and if they do they’ll be sorely disappointed. There’s a culture in professional sports — and this sometimes includes the college game as well — that players are entitled to their own code, that they have their own rules, and Rule No. 1 is that rules don’t apply to them.
The NFL has an Official Personal Conduct Policy, obviously written by lawyers, interpreted by elaborate panels of experts conversant in measuring digital and photographic evidence, to protect the public and particularly certain females of the species.
The league earlier this year suspended one Ezekiel Elliott, a running back for the Dallas Cowboys, for running over his girlfriend in what the NFL describes as “conduct that violated NFL policy,” not otherwise specified. But the public can guess the specifics. Over the years certain girlfriends and wives of players have absorbed considerable damage to noses, eyes, mouths, shoulders, arms, abdomens and other tender parts of the female body, and without the padding and protections that players have in absorbing Sunday afternoon punishment.
The owners are having a hard time with their playbook. Once upon a time they could rely on their players to “do the right thing.” Now it’s up to the paying public to drop the flag, and empty seats and falling television ratings will exact the proper penalties. The players should be welcome to stay on their knees for as long as they like, and the rest of us are entitled to take their measure.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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