Football jumped off the sports pages last fall, as protesting NFL players and contentious national anthem debates prompted rhetoric from elected officials, fodder at political rallies and grist for social media feeds. Now, as an important election season nears, the sport is being used as a political football to charm pliable voting blocs.
Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), in the midst of a race for the Tennessee governor’s seat, is touting the fact that she canceled her season tickets to Tennessee Titans games because some NFL players consistently knelt during the national anthem last fall. She called her choice “a deeply-held belief” that her family “felt we needed to do,” and said the NFL anthem issue is personal to many in her state. Black said she’s received positive feedback from constituents as she traveled across Tennessee campaigning for the Republican spot in November’s general election.
“We are one of those states that really honors our traditional values,” Black said in an interview discussing football in politics. “For us and our state, this is not something that would be so much outside of what people would expect. They still have a high regard for things like the flag and the national anthem and for prayer. I’m right where I need to be in my state.”
Black skipped Titans games last season and has since mentioned football in advertisements, interviews and editorials. She announced in a first-person piece for the website Outkick the Coverage earlier this month that she was giving up her four Titans season tickets.
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the Cook Political Report, said the NFL issue may not resonate as much for voters in other states and political races. Though November’s midterm elections are still more than six months away, Duffy said Black may be using football as a way to distinguish herself in a competitive primary field.
“The one consistent thing about Republican primaries this cycle is everyone is running as far to the right as they can. This is an issue that can set her apart,” Duffy said. “Many candidates in these primaries feel like they have to motivate the Republican base — and specifically, Trump Republicans — to come vote.”
President Trump tweeted about the player protests throughout the 2017 football season, including 37 separate tweets in one month-long period alone. “The American public is fed up with the disrespect the NFL is paying to our Country, our Flag and our National Anthem,” he tweeted on Nov. 28. “Weak and out of control!”
Football is therefore a ripe issue for any candidates eager to align with Trump. The home page of Black’s campaign website features a photo of Trump and a signed newspaper article, in which the president wrote in all-caps, “Diane you are great — thanks!”
“Donald Trump supports Diane Black — do you?” her site asks.
But Black said the NFL issue is personal, not political. She and her husband, Dave, are both from military families. She grew up rooting for the Baltimore Colts and began attending NFL games in Nashville from the day the Oilers relocated there in 1998. The Titans were as much a part of her Sunday routine as church and family dinners. The Blacks would travel to occasional road games and follow the team through the playoffs.
“This is not an easy thing for me to do and say because it’s something I love,” she said. “I really do love it, and it was a big decision for us to make.”
But, she said, she felt there was no choice. If football players insisted on making a stand, so would she.
“I’d like to see them get out of the political piece,” she said. “This is an entertainment venue. But you have to be consistent about it. … And so for us, our deeply-held beliefs were, you’re not honoring the flag, I’m not going to be pay for you to be on the field to do something that I believe is wrong.”
“Look,” she continued, “they have a right to protest. If you want to protest because you believe something is not going right with the police, go protest at the police department.”
No Titans player has knelt during the anthem, though wide receiver Rishard Matthews remained in the locker room during the anthem for most of last season. Before one Titans game, a singer took a knee after belting out the anthem.
Black missed all of that. Last fall she spent her Sundays fishing, saying she was surprised how quickly her family adapted to its new weekend routine.
“After a couple weeks, we looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, we’re not really missing this right now. We’re doing what we like do as a family,’” she said. “We didn’t check the scores. We didn’t turn on the television. We just went on with life and did other things to fill the void.”
She made her feelings quite public — “my seats will stay empty until we have an appreciation of our flag, our men and women who fight for this country, and for what this flag stands for,” she said in an interview with Hugh Hewitt last October — and then she made more headlines in the days before the NFL’s biggest game. Black aired a Super Bowl advertisement across Tennessee, scolding the league and urging fans to stand for the anthem. “It’s too bad that the league does not respect the patriotism of the national anthem,” she said in the ad.
Black said she hasn’t heard much feedback from colleagues on Capitol Hill about her football stance, speculating that it might not be as important an issue in other states. There are three dozen upcoming gubernatorial races, which include 26 held by Republicans. And some states, like Florida and Tennessee, will have competitive primaries in which Republicans are aiming to distinguish themselves in any way possible.
In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam (R) is term-limited after two terms, and Black is facing a Republican field that includes Beth Harwell, the speaker of State House, state Sen. Mae Beavers, and local businessmen Bill Lee and Randy Boyd.
As a campaign issue, sports don’t usually trump civic and social issues, said Duffy, the political analyst. When they do arise, they often concern stadium or arena funding.
“A lot of politicians might have spoken out on one side of the national anthem issue,” Duffy said, “but for most of them, it was a one-day news cycle.”
Black has nothing critical to say about football fans who chose to file into Nissan Stadium on Sundays this fall, and she doesn’t think she’ll turn off any voters in a football-loving state by skipping the games. Her family still holds tickets to the NHL’s Predators and has no intention of giving those up.
“We love our football. We love our Tennessee Titans. But I also love the Predators,” she said, “and I love the other sports that we have. So I can still be a part of that because I feel like they are honoring what we are.”
Black said she’ll have no qualms missing out on a deep playoff run — the Titans advanced to the divisional round last season — and that giving up her tickets won’t make her feel any less connected to voters in a state that often plans its week around football on fall Saturdays and Sundays.
“I would imagine people will ask me if you’ve changed your mind, are you going to come back?” she said. “That depends on what the NFL does, if the NFL decides to change the policy and to hold their players accountable for not being on the field supporting or not supporting a certain belief. I come there for entertainment. That’s what I go there for. I want them to entertain me.”
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