The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NFL is back. And it hasn’t learned a single thing.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a letter Thursday welcoming the start of a new season.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a letter Thursday welcoming the start of a new season. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Welcome to the 2018 NFL season. You know, the one the league was once so adamant to make all about football that it darn near knelt and kissed President Trump’s feet. It felt that desperate to shift the conversation from protests and weighty subject matter back to the game.

Desperation, as the NFL should have known, is a terrible negotiator.

As Week 1 began Thursday with the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles holding off the Atlanta Falcons, 18-12, football was forced to share its spotlight again. Colin Kaepernick, the unemployed quarterback suing the NFL for collusion, resonated more than the game’s starting signal callers, Matt Ryan and Nick Foles. That’s because Nike revealed its extraordinary decision this week to feature Kaepernick in an ad campaign marking the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan. In doing so, the shoe and athletic apparel giant — a prominent NFL business partner — embraced his controversial protests and social stances at a time when the league is alienating him. Nike’s stirring two-minute advertisement was set to air on NBC during the NFL opener, complete with Kaepernick saying at the end, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad airs during NFL season opener on NBC

Or believe in nothing. Even though it still means sacrificing something.

Nike chose Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces for a new ad campaign marking the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan. (Video: Taylor Turner, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

The NFL just wants to go back to normal. The issue is, normal doesn’t stay in one place forever. In general, there is no going back in life, either. The league needs to evolve in thought, in approach and in action. It needs to realize that these are disruptive, historic times in which agnostic observers will be trampled, and there’s no such thing as playing it safe.

Nike is the epitome of a company that should be motivated to protect its lucrative status quo. Keep people in a sneaker-buying trance. Just do it. But by featuring Kaepernick in this campaign, it has chosen to shock, irritate and possibly provoke some to abandon its brand, and it’s not simply some noble act to support a social justice warrior. Nike is looking into the future, seizing an opportunity to make a deeper impression on younger shoppers and sensing it will be on the right side of history.

In 30 years, we might look at this as a seminal moment in Nike’s fearless effort to maintain relevance. Or it might be just something that made a lot of people mad for a period and then blew over. Either way, it’s a risk the company can justify. It’s not a decision that, on its own, can ruin Nike.

Colin Kaepernick appears in Nike's new ad campaign for the company's 30th anniversary of the "Just Do It" slogan. (Video: Nike)

As much as the NFL believes in its brand, I’m not sure it has that level of confidence. It’s also selling something different: an actual game with transitory personnel. Still, the NFL lacks such a flair for strategic thinking because its owners consider their teams toys that print money. That’s the appeal. These aren’t the businesses that most of them worked so hard to turn into billion-dollar enterprises. This is supposed to be the ultimate rich perk: If you can afford a team, then you have unlocked the ability to make tens of millions per year without really trying.

Eagles ring in the new season by holding off Falcons in a thriller

So what happens when something serious — be it ailing former players or domestic violence offenders or political protests — requires the NFL to be more than a collection of 32 owner toys? The league is stunned because that isn’t what the people in charge really signed up for. That makes the NFL slow to care, slower to react and slowest to hit upon anything that even resembles a solution.

The response is predictable: Do whatever it takes to return to normal. Just do it. Make the problem go away, and make the cash start flowing again.

In hip-hop music, there’s a cliche: Scared money don’t make money. You don’t have to be a rapper to get it. Nike understands the concept. The other three so-called Big Four sports leagues (NBA, MLB and NHL) have had to recover from past stumbles, and they have done so partly because they were forced to grasp this notion and pursue varying degrees of reinvention. As the king of American sports, the NFL has started to believe too much in its immortality. Owners act as if the league can’t die if the sport keeps pivoting back to normal. But what if normal isn’t what it used to be?

This time, my intent isn’t to shred the NFL again for refusing to support its protesting players in a meaningful way. It’s not even to criticize the league for kowtowing to Trump in May, when it introduced an anthem policy so laughable the league had to pull it back to negotiate with the NFL Players Association. This is about the basic fact that we’re beginning a third season of the Protest Era, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners he represents still don’t have their stuff together on this issue.

Miss America contestant asked about NFL protests, wins prize for answer

And now the season they just wanted to be normal has begun without any clarity of the league’s anthem policy and methods of enforcement. They’re just in a holding pattern, still talking to the union, with the latest offer being a compromise in which the league would not discipline any of the few lingering protesters if the union would make a public endorsement of players standing during the anthem.

In other words: “If we say pretty please, would you just go along with the appearance that everything is fine? Okay, pretty please with a Le’Veon Bell holdout resolution on top?”

The union can’t sell out for that because many players are still upset that, after weeks of seemingly positive meetings between the owners and Players Coalition, the league foolishly used “respect the flag” rhetoric in its anthem policy. And that language makes the players seem disrespectful and unpatriotic, not conscientious citizens who have greater concerns about American society. It was hurtful. It was shameful because the phrasing existed to placate Trump.

Once the NBA started recognizing its players’ concerns about police brutality, it took the league mere days to express support and channel the athletes’ energy in areas beyond protesting. This is the third season with the same concern in the NFL, and the league has neither a clear position nor an effective method of helping the players achieve their goals without protesting. It’s a stunning lack of authentic communication and compassion for the workforce. And this protest issue hasn’t minimized because of negligence.

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

On Thursday, Goodell released a statement that served as an awfully written attempt to put focus on the games. It was generic and uninspired: “There really is nothing like football. The plays that make your jaw drop. The moments that make your heart pound through your chest. The stakes that are always there . . .”

The statement didn’t address any league issues, not even the new helmet-hitting rule. It ended with, “Football. Is. Back.”

Wow. So. Lame.

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