NBC plans to televise any players who refuse to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, but there may be nothing to show.
It appears that NFL players are no longer taking a knee during the national anthem, namely because none of the teams with still-active protesters has qualified for the postseason.
By the end of the regular season, only five teams featured at least one player regularly sitting or kneeling on the sidelines for the anthem: the Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers, the Miami Dolphins, the New York Giants and the Oakland Raiders.
None of those franchises made the playoffs, even though four of the five did so in the previous season, leading to speculation about whether the take-a-knee protests wound up dragging down team performance along with TV ratings.
“By their actions, the kneelers brought controversy into the locker rooms, and this kind of distraction is always going to be detrimental to team cohesiveness,” said Robert Kuykendall, a spokesman for the conservative corporate watchdog 2ndVote.
“They unfairly put their own teammates in the tough position, especially the players who believe the national anthem and the flag should be respected,” he said. “Obviously, teams without the distraction were going to be more focused on the game, and that is a catalyst for success.”
Sports psychologist John F. Murray emphasized that it would be impossible to quantify the impact on individual teams but said it stands to reason that the high-profile protests could have disrupted locker-room unity.
“As a sports psychologist, if my mission is to help a team play better, I see it as a distraction,” said Mr. Murray, who is based in Palm Beach, Florida, and has worked with NFL players.
He said teams should expect problems if players perceive that their teammates are “putting a social agenda above the mission” of winning games.
“I work with athletes, and I’m very sensitive to the impact of even a slight disruption in team unity,” said Mr. Murray. “I think that would certainly be a possibility. If you’ve got some people who are strongly against that and some people who aren’t, you’re putting that issue in the way of going out there and performing well.”
There have been no prominent reports of kneeling or sitting since the postseason began, although what is happening on the sidelines isn’t entirely clear to anyone at this point except those on the teams and in the stands.
The networks have moved away from televising the anthem ceremonies since the uproar peaked in Week 3, when nearly 200 players reacted to President Trump’s Sept. 22 suggestion that owners should fire anyone who refused to stand.
Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal chairwoman of advertising sales, said in a Nov. 3 speech to the ad agency R/GA that advertisers had put pressure on the networks to stop showing the protest activity.
“Marketers have said, ‘We will not be part of the NFL if you continue covering it,’” Ms. Yaccarino said, as reported by Business Insider.
Even so, NBC Sports executive producer Fred Gaudelli said last week that the cameras would cover the players during the anthem ceremony at Super Bowl LII, slated for Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.
“If there are players who choose to kneel, they will be shown live,” Mr. Gaudelli told the Television Critics Association, as reported by Variety. “I would say, probably since Thanksgiving, a lot of that has kind of dissipated and died down. It’s certainly possible it could happen again.”
By Week 17, only about 20 players were still protesting, led by the Seattle Seahawks with 10 players, followed by San Francisco with four, according to ESPN, which kept a weekly tally during the regular season but has not done so for the postseason.
The most surprising omission from the 2017 playoffs was Seattle, which has made the postseason every year since 2012 and appeared in two Super Bowls during that span, winning it all at the end of the 2013 season.
Of course, standing for the national anthem was no guarantee of success. Plenty of teams without regular crews of kneelers also missed the playoffs in a 32-team league where only 12 teams secure postseason berths.
Ironically, the 49ers — the one team among the five with protesting squads that missed the playoffs last season and was expected to be bad this year — peeled off a five-game winning streak at the end of the season after acquiring quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Despite being 1-10 at the start of December, they beat three playoff teams during their season-ending hot streak.
While the postseason teams had no recent kneeling, a few of their players protested in less-obvious ways.
In Kansas City, which won the AFC West, cornerback Marcus Peters initially sat but later opted to stay in the tunnel during the anthem. Wide receiver Rishard Matthews, whose Tennessee Titans won a wild card slot, also remained in the tunnel.
The NFL television ratings dropped by 9.7 percent during the 2017 regular season, accelerating a slide that began last season, when the league experienced an 8 percent decline in its audience, according to Nielsen data.
The average game audience of 14.9 million was down from 16.5 million in 2016. Even so, NFL games represented 33 of the 50 most-watched shows of the year.
Blame for the dive has been attributed to everything from bad weather to poor officiating and unexciting matchups, but there is little doubt that the take-a-knee protests fueled fan outrage, prompting some to tune out the games.
“Obviously, [the NFL] took a major hit this year in terms of viewership,” said Mr. Murray. “I think a lot of that is attributable to the take-a-knee thing. I’m not against First Amendment rights. I think it’s extremely important to be able to express social disagreement with what might be going on in the government, what might be going on in the world. But I just don’t think it’s the place and time to do it on the sidelines of NFL games.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has struggled to deal with the protests, which began last year in response to the deaths of black men at the hands of police. He said he believes players should stand but stops short of enacting a rule change that would require them to do so.
A protest-free playoff run may help soothe unhappy fans, but Mr. Kuykendall said the NFL may find it’s too little, too late to avoid a hit to its bottom line.
“A lack of protests in the postseason may be better for the league’s public image, but the long-term damage will be felt as sponsors negotiate their advertising deals for the next season,” Mr. Kuykendall said. “Advertisers are likely to demand lower prices because of the loss of viewership.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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