A veterans advocacy group is accusing the National Football League of censorship for not accepting its advertisement for the Super Bowl. But after a season of free speech on full display and a year after politically charged Super Bowls ads, the decision has some charging the league with hypocrisy.
American Veterans wanted to run an ad in the game’s commemorative program with a message aimed at those protesting the national anthem: “Please Stand.”
Marion Polk, the American Veterans national commander, called the decision “reprehensible and totally beyond the pale” in a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The NFL rejected the initial ad and instead asked the organization to consider other options for its message, such as “Please Honor Our Veterans” and “Please Stand for Our Veterans,” according to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. McCarthy said the organization never responded before the program went to print.
“We decided that we were not going to change our ad. We placed it as 'Please Stand' and under the First Amendment we have the right to do that,” Polk told Fox News.
The NFL did include an ad from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, with a message of “We Stand for Veterans.”
Last year's Super Bowl attracted attention, outside of the typical spectacle, for commercials that highlighted political issues, particularly ones that were perceived as anti-Trump.
Budweiser ran a controversial commercial featuring a sympathetic immigrant story, just days after the president announced his travel ban. And an 84 Lumber ad depicting a mother and daughter attempting to cross the U.S. border quickly became one of the most polarizing and talked-about moments of the night. The ad ran in full on the company's website after Fox deemed it too political.
Women for Trump called the NFL “hypocrites” for its decision on the American Veterans ad, after learning about the organization's plans to publicize social justice issues that are important to players.
Conservative radio host Dana Loesch suggested that the NFL has double standards, referencing socks Colin Kaepernick was allowed to wear to make a political statement about law enforcement.
Since the protests began in 2016, large numbers of Americans, including many conservative lawmakers, have objected to the NFL protests, calling them disrespectful to the military. President Trump suggested that NFL owners should fire the “sons of b-----s.”
Americans' views on the protests have varied depending on their race and political affiliation, with black Americans and liberal Americans being more supportive of the protests than white Americans and conservatives.
According to a survey from SurveyMonkey and Ozy Media, a third of Americans “purposely stopped watching” the NFL this season. Nearly a third of those people said they did so “in support of Donald Trump.” And 22 percent said their decision was made “in solidarity with players kneeling.”
Some individual veterans and organizations have rejected the insistence on pitting the military against protesting athletes.
San Francisco 49er Eric Reed, who was one of the first NFL players to join Kaepernick’s protest, wrote in the New York Times that the protests were not aimed at disrespecting the military.
“It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.”
A photo of World War II veteran John Middlemas taking a knee in support of the NFL players went viral shortly after Trump suggested that kneeling players should be fired.
The message from Middlemas, a nonagenarian war veteran: “Those kids have every right to protest.”
With the Super Bowl in less than two weeks, the issue has indeed re-entered the national conversation.
But the posture of athletes is not likely to change until policy makers address the issues that caused them to take a knee in the first place. Athletes such as Reed believe there has to be a way to address both the concerns of veterans and athletes protesting racism. Sure, some veterans and their supporters want the protests to end, but so do many NFL players. They just want racism and police violence to end more.