The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For decades, the NFL wrapped itself in the flag. Now, that’s made business uneasy.

An American flag covers the AT&T Stadium field before a 2017 playoff football game between the Cowboys and Packers. (Mat Otero/AP)

The national anthem blared over Busch Stadium, and David Meggyesy stood in line with — but apart from — his St. Louis Cardinals teammates. A mandate had come from the NFL during the week: When “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, players would line up facing the flag, helmet tucked under their left arm and right hand placed over their heart.

“What I said,” Meggyesy recalled, “was no.”

Meggyesy, a 26-year-old linebacker, bowed his head and held the face mask of his helmet with one hand, letting it rest between his knee and hip.

The year was 1968, and as the Vietnam War raged on, Meggyesy saw no other way to address the conflict he felt. In his mind, the league was overtly backing the war effort to appease Middle America. “The younger people,” he said, “understood what the f--- was going on.” The St. Louis antiwar chapter operated out of a third-floor office in his house.

By the end of the 1968 season, despite playing at a near-all-pro level, Meggyesy would be benched. By the end of the 1969 season, he was out of the league for good — blackballed, he believes, for his stance.

“I was more pissed about their response of militarism, patriotism and all that more than anything,” Meggyesy recalled this summer in a phone conversation. “And the overt burden of the players, saying, ‘You’re the chattel out here, and you’ve got no say how we’re going to do it and salute the flag.’ Which is a personal decision for anybody.

“And of course, Colin right now has revisited that whole question.”

Colin, of course, is former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He and other players who followed him have made clear their varied demonstrations during the pregame playing of the national anthem have nothing to do with the military and instead are responses to police brutality against black men and other issues of racial inequality. But particularly after being targeted by hostile statements and tweets from President Trump, today’s protests have posed an uneasy challenge to a sports league that has cultivated an association with patriotism and the military more than any other.

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“It’s the position they’ve put themselves in,” said Oregon State professor Michael Oriard, a former NFL lineman and author of several books on the league’s place in society. “They’re not content to be entertainment — Disney/Pixar doesn’t profess to be saving the world. Even with ‘Coco,’ they’re going to play up the multicultural sensitivities, but they implicitly acknowledge they’re in business to make money. The NFL claims to be in the business to be a beacon of Americanness or something. They brought that on themselves. It backfires on them.”

In 2015, an oversight report by Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona revealed the NFL as one of several leagues that accepted Department of Defense funds to stage military tributes, a practice known as paid patriotism. (The league eventually gave back more than $700,000, drawing praise from Flake.) Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton administration staffer, had just joined the NFL as a spokesman when the scandal broke.

“As I dug into that a little bit, the National Guard, which is probably the most aggressive advertiser at NFL games, talked about how it was the single best recruitment vehicle they had,” said Lockhart, who left the NFL last year. “Which is just interesting. I think there is a connection. . . . Football Sundays have a connection to what a lot of people view as patriotism.”

'A conscious effort'

By its nature, football is a militaristic sport. Opponents fight for territory. There are “trenches” and “blitzes” and “bombs.” The NFL’s massive popularity across all societal spectra may have made its ties to national identity inevitable.

“I do not see in any way, shape or form that the NFL is trying to cloak itself in patriotism. It doesn’t have to. It’s there,” longtime Fox Sports NFL producer David Hill said in a phone interview. “I took Fox Sports to Bagram Air Force, and I saw what football means to those troops. It’s huge. It is a massive part of the culture. . . . Football is part of the country’s absolute core. I think that patriotism finds football, rather than football finding patriotism.”

The NFL, whether through intensive marketing or well-intentioned and even private homages, has emphasized those ties.

By the early 1960s, the NFL had emerged from the backwaters of professional sports and started its television-propelled path to becoming a behemoth. Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who served in the Navy during World War II, laid the groundwork for the league’s growth and pushed it toward patriotism.

Rozelle made the first Super Bowls a showcase for Americana. In 1968, the Super Bowl hosted the first military flyover, which established the NFL’s relationship with the Department of Defense. The 1969 Super Bowl included a halftime with the theme “America Thanks.” And in 1970, halftime included a reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans.

“It was a conscious effort on our part to bring the element of patriotism into the Super Bowl,” Rozelle said years later, after he had stepped down.

The NFL started sending players on goodwill tours to visit military personnel in 1965. The league viewed military tributes as both genuine acknowledgments and a means to boost its image.

“Our military men and women have been traditionally among our most ardent fans,” longtime NFL spokesman Joe Browne, who retired from the NFL in 2016 after 50 years, wrote in an email. “When we started sending active players overseas on USO tours 50 years ago, was that a simple ‘gesture’ on our part or were we paying back those men and women for their support of the league and their devotion to our country? I strongly believe it was not a gesture.”

Into the 1980s and 1990s, the NFL continued to position itself as a patriotic entity, using the Super Bowl as its largest platform. The game became a de facto national holiday, a celebration of both sport and country. The league coordinated flyovers with the Department of Defense, with the national anthem a central part of the spectacle.

“We’ve become the winter version of the Fourth of July celebration,” then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in 1991.

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The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 deepened the NFL’s ties to patriotism. Because they occurred at the start of the NFL season, the league’s response became a significant question in how American life would resume. “After about a week, we started to think, ‘We really need to send a signal to let these sports organizations know it’s okay to play. It will help America recover,’ ” then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

When the United States launched the war in Afghanistan later in the fall, it happened on a Sunday morning. President Bush’s speech announcing the campaign played on video boards in NFL stadiums. Sporting events became a source of normalcy and communion.

As wars in the Middle East wore on, the NFL’s brand of patriotism placed the military at the fore of its charitable efforts and its brand. Military tributes are pervasive at games, so commonplace that the Marines used the appeal of them in a recruitment commercial. In 2009, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus flipped the opening coin of the Super Bowl at midfield.

The NFL’s efforts include unquestionable charity. By selling specified, camouflage Salute to Service merchandise and donating proceeds to nonprofits, along with other programs, the NFL says it has raised $26 million for military causes since 2011.

But the prevalence of the tributes worries some. The service members presented at games can feel like props, part of a show. The camouflage uniforms and accessories can cheapen the sacrifice of soldiers and prohibit critical thinking about the military.

“It almost feels like it’s a mandatory patriotism that is pushed down the throats of anybody who wants to attend a game,” said former Army Ranger and author Rory Fanning, who has become a vocal critic of America’s wars. “By trotting out veterans, patting them on the back, I don’t think it does justice to the actual experience of veterans, particularly over the last 18 years. There certainly isn’t an opportunity for veterans to talk about their experiences in combat. So many veterans don’t feel like the heroes the NFL wants to present them as.”

The NFL intends to honor soldiers by dressing players in camouflage accessories and selling them for charity. But the idea of players wearing colors reserved for service members rankles some. “I had two brothers serve in the military,” retired linebacker Chris Borland said. “I think it’s bulls---, frankly.”

While raising money for noble causes, the NFL has intertwined its brand with the military, and that enhances the way many football fans feel about both.

“It reverberates naturally with the fan base,” Fleischer said. “If the NFL decided it was going to really promote veganism and vegetarianism, it probably wouldn’t go over very well with the fan base. Because it’s consumer-driven. It’s a reflection of who the fans are and what the fans’ interests are. When the NFL decides it wants to have partnerships and public displays with the military, it’s very well received because the fan base is so inclined. It’s a perfect match.”

Different times

The prominence of the NFL’s patriotism is what gave Kaepernick the platform to protest in the first place. Before 2009, players were not on the field for the national anthem for typical regular season games, a decision the league made to please broadcast partners.

“We were instructed to play the anthem when players weren’t on the field,” said former NFL executive Jim Steeg, referencing his time as a San Diego Chargers executive. “They didn’t want, when the networks were coming in for the tease, to have the anthem on in the background. They wanted the players coming in and the cheer of the crowd.”

But in 2009, the NFL began telling teams players needed to be on the sidelines for the anthem. Hardly anyone noticed the difference at the time or even when Kaepernick first sat down on a bench during the anthem before a preseason game in 2016.

But by then, America had become far more divided, and separating politics from patriotism became impossible. When Trump referred to a player who protests during the anthem as a “son of a bitch” and indicated owners should fire such players, it turned the NFL into a cultural battleground.

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Last fall, a nationwide poll conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Massachusetts Lowell found 17 percent of fans who said their interest in the NFL had decreased specifically cited anthem protests or Kaepernick — a greater cause than head injuries or violence. When the NFL announced it would allow teams to penalize players who demonstrated during the national anthem, many on the left, most prominently Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), said they would boycott NFL games.

The NFL has tried to appease every part of its fan base, which in 2018, for an entity as dominant as the NFL, is impossible. The division roiling the country affects the NFL because the NFL is such a dominating feature of American life.

“If you invent yourself as a cultural institution, when the culture fractures, there you are,” Oriard said. “What are you going to do about it?”

The NFL is searching for the answer. In Week 1, thousands of fans will pack stadiums and millions will watch from couches and bars. Meggyesy, who now lives in Washington state, may or may not be among them. “The games are too long,” he said, laughing.

Some fans, undoubtedly, will have Kaepernick on their minds when the anthem is played. Fifty years ago, that probably would not have been the case. Meggyesy recalled a very different reaction to his demonstration. While he received blowback from a local newspaper columnist, the league itself barely addressed him.

“They did not have any big issues publicly,” Meggyesy said. “It was a very different world.”