Tuesday brought a noteworthy confluence of NFL-related news, as Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill went on a radio show to tout the virtues of President Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court. Shortly thereafter, the NFL’s players’ union announced that it was filing a grievance against the league over its new policy about conduct during pregame renditions of the national anthem.
Both episodes raised issues regarding the place of political activism in sports, and Bidwill, the son of Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, has been accused of hypocrisy, given his strong support for a policy meant to deter players from expressing social views while representing their teams and the league as a whole. Some pointed out that the Cardinals’ website published a story Monday detailing Bidwill’s long-standing friendship with U.S. Appeals Court Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh and that it was then promoted by the team’s official Twitter account.
The story concerned a letter sent by Bidwill and other graduates of Georgetown Prep, a D.C.-area private high school, to U.S. Senate leaders on behalf of Kavanaugh, a former classmate. The letter, also signed by Prep alumnus and New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, included the statement, “We unite in our common belief that Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh is a good man, a brilliant jurist, and is eminently qualified to serve as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
“I’ve known him for more than 37 years,” Bidwill was quoted in the story as saying. “We stayed in close contact over the years — we have a pretty tight high school class — and we all knew Brett was pretty special. He’s got a sharp mind. He’s been a brilliant jurist for a long time.”
The Cardinals’ publication and promotion of the story put the team firmly on one side of a charged political debate that will only get more heated as Kavanaugh answers questions in congressional hearings. Bidwill appeared to strike a different tone in May, after the league announced its new policy on anthem conduct, when he said, “I look forward to getting the focus back on football and getting back to football in 2018.”
Two months before that, Texans owner Robert McNair asserted that NFL playing fields are “not the place for political statements.” Whereas some players had been protesting racial injustice by sitting, kneeling or raising their fists during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the new policy mandates that they “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem” or remain in their locker rooms, with violations subject to possible fines from teams or the league.
On Tuesday, Bidwill appeared on a Phoenix-area station with conservative radio host Mike Broomhead and was asked if he had any regrets about the way he went about publicizing his support for Kavanaugh. “None at all. I think it’s important to speak up,” Bidwill replied (via ABC15).
“People are saying, ‘Stick to sports.’ We ask our players 20 games a year on game days to restrict their statements,” he continued. “The rest of the days, we want them to be out there getting engaged in the communities just like I am and other owners are.”
The NFL Players Association took a dim view of the idea of restricting its members’ speech. “This new policy, imposed by the NFL’s governing body without consultation with the NFLPA, is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement and infringes on player rights,” the union said in a statement.
The NFLPA said that as it prepared to file its grievance with the league, it “proposed to the NFL to begin confidential discussions” with union leaders to “find a solution to this issue instead of immediately proceeding with litigation.” The league “has agreed to proceed with those discussions,” according to the NFLPA.
The NFL is already dealing with a lawsuit from former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who filed his own grievance in October. He is claiming that team owners colluded to bar him from their league by refusing to sign him once he became a free agent in March 2017, with Kaepernick, who was the first to kneel during the anthem, pointing to his “principled and peaceful political protest” as the cause of his unemployment.
Kaepernick’s grievance filing also cited Trump, who has singled out the quarterback for criticism while using the NFL’s protests as a frequent target of his ire. In May, after the policy announcement, it was reported that the quarterback’s lawyers were able to depose Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who testified that the president “changed the dialogue” league executives were having about how to handle the protests.
That provided evidence for claims that the NFL’s ostensible attempt to take politics out of its sport was itself layered with political calculations. As for the motives behind Bidwill’s support for Kavanaugh, he claimed on the radio show that it was purely personal.
“There’s nobody that’s more qualified. But for me, it’s really not about the politics,” the Cardinals owner said, “it’s 100 percent about he is just a great person, and I want people to know that.”
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