How the League Can Change the Political Conversation
SMITH BRAIN TRUST – How should the National Football League respond to a pro-Trump political action committee's "Turn Off the NFL" boycott?
"The league needs to grab this ball and run it up the field," says Henry C. Boyd III, marketing professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
"The NFL can change the narrative, and that's what it needs to do here," says Boyd, a lawyer and marketing consultant whose clients have included the NFL. He suggests a narrative that doesn't "dance around the edges" but gets "straight to the point," and that poses the question: What does it mean to be an American?
The football league has a giant loudspeaker – several weekly football games that unfailingly rank among the most-watched programming on television. And, Boyd says, it should use that loudspeaker to broadcast 30-second and 60-second messages about unity, football and patriotism.
"What are our American principles? Let's talk about it. Let's get that out there. The NFL has an opportunity with some ad spots to do that," says Boyd, a former Smith School diversity officer whose father was a prolific civil rights activist. "Go back to the Constitution, and say, your right to speak freely is ingrained in the Constitution. It's ingrained in the DNA of what's American."
To be sure, the NFL has not been silent since President Trump stood at a rally last Friday in Alabama and launched an attack, which he later reiterated on Twitter, in which he berated NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, telling the league's owners to fire any player who doesn't stand for the pregame "Star Spangled Banner." Several players, owners and coaches have given interviews on the topic, sent tweets, posted Facebook comments and released media statements, many of them blasting the president for what they perceived as an attack on the constitutional right to free speech.
Boyd agrees with that assessment. "It almost leaves me speechless. Colin Kaepernick was just trying to draw attention to racism in America – police brutality directed toward African-Americans – and he has that right."
On Sunday and Monday, dozens more NFL players across the country and several team owners, knelt or stood with arms locked, in a show of prayer and solidarity. Three teams, the Seattle Seahawks, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans, stayed off the field altogether for the anthem.
But with an ad campaign, the entire league can speak for the first time with one voice, says Boyd. And that could be powerful.
"The NFL has a golden moment where they can say, 'We believe in these principles, which are the founding principles of the nation, and we stand by the players' rights to express themselves in this way – a way that is a nonviolent form of civil disobedience,'" Boyd says.
The issue has been controversial since last season when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled for the anthem, rather than standing. He later explained, saying, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way."
The Kaepernick protest has been divisive from the start.
Critics have blamed Kaepernick's protests for the NFL's decline in TV ratings last year, saying many fans were so offended by the form of protest that they just stopped watching the games. The league saw a regular season ratings dip of about 8 percent last season, compared to the one prior.
Others say the ratings dip was just a natural outcrop of the fact that viewers now are able to watch the games on NFL Red Zone or on other streaming services that Nielsen's figures don't track. And still others speculate that fans decided to stop watching, dismayed about the league's handling of the concussion risks its players face.
It's not clear whether the latest controversy in the league and the "Turn Off the NFL" boycott will result in lower ratings. Some predict the quarrel and all attention it's gotten will actually drive ratings higher.
Either way, says Boyd, the NFL will want to present a unified message.
"They will want to make sure all the arrows line up, like we teach in integrated marketing communications," says Boyd. "There should be one common theme that everyone understands. And that's this: 'This a sport that we have all grown up with. Football fans, you have the power. You make the call. By tuning in you are saying, I'm an American and this is mine. No one can take this away from me, not even the president."
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