Stuart Elliott: Ways for the NFL to Find Light at the End of the Tunnel

By Stuart Elliott Report Archives
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For decades, the experts agreed that television was the most effective advertising medium and that network coverage of pro football probably was the most effective type of TV programming in delivering audiences to marketers.  It's no accident that the Super Bowl typically is the biggest day of the year for Madison Avenue as well as for football fans.

But the goose that laid the golden eggs all those years -- for the sponsors, the NFL and the networks -- definitely looks as if it's about to get cooked. The imbroglio that began last season, when players started kneeling, sitting or raising fists during the national anthem, threatens to erode viewership, weaken ties between advertisers and the league and make the expensive rights deals to carry games less worthwhile for the networks (or, for that matter, streaming services or social media platforms).

The dispute has grown uglier in recent weeks after President Trump barged in with barbed tweets charging the protesting players with being disrespectful to "The Star-Spangled Banner," the American flag and the United States military.  He and his supporters keep calling what the players are doing a "national anthem protest," which makes it sound as if the players are protesting the anthem -- which they're not.  They're protesting police brutality, injustice and racial inequality, but that may be too fine a distinction for people who support the president or for those who maybe just want to watch a game without it becoming a, you should pardon the expression, political football.

Matters only got worse last week when Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, was quoted by ESPN as saying the players' protests are the equivalent of having "inmates running the prison."  It would've been far less incendiary, and far more accurate, if McNair had said, "We can't have inmates running the asylum."  That's because so many folks involved with pro football these days are behaving like residents of a mental hospital: They're nuts for wreaking havoc on their livelihoods.

I'm much more of a baseball fan than a football fan; there are seasons when the Super Bowl is the only game that I've watched -- and then, of course, it's to check out the commercials.  Still, TV coverage of the NFL provides so much grist for my mill that I'd hate to see the damage continue. So, what follows are five suggestions for how to try to resolve this vexing matter.

1.  Ask the NFL's advertisers to meet with the protesting players and the owners who have sought to end the kneeling during the national anthem.  It's not too much of a stretch because more and more marketers have been taking stances on important social and political issues of the day.  For instance, ESPN reported that a major sponsor told the owners it would end its affiliation with the NFL if they ordered the players to stand during the anthem.  And the Oikos Greek yogurt brand sold by the Dannon division of Danone chose sides after a spokesman, the Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, made sexist remarks to a female reporter; Dannon quickly dropped its endorsement deal with him and condemned what he said as "disparaging to all women."

2.  Ask the networks that carry NFL games to run public service announcements during those telecasts that would be devoted to discussing the topics being brought up by the players.  Whether those spots would advocate whole-heartedly for what the protesters are calling for, or be more explanatory in nature, could be decided by a committee of players and owners.  If such commercials are approved, they might be presented under existing network PSA umbrella campaigns such as "CBS Cares" and "The More You Know" (NBCUniversal).  Perhaps the networks' game announcers and hosts can take part in them.

3.  Along similar lines, each network that carries NFL games could devote 30 or 60 minutes on its schedule -- preferably before a game, or in prime time -- to a town hall program that would give viewers a chance to be exposed to more than sound bites (or tweets) on the issues involved.

4.  The players and their union, the National Football League Players Association, could do more in the way of making the concerns behind the protests more tangible.  They could follow the example of Chris Long, defensive end of the Philadelphia Eagles, who is not only outspoken on subjects such as the neo-Nazi march through his hometown, Charlottesville, VA, but also announced that he would donate his entire salary this season -- $1 million -- to educational charities.

5.  It's time for teams' coaches to enter the fray and use their bully pulpits to talk back to bullies.  The footballers might take a page from the playbook of the National Basketball Association and emulate the thoughtful, thought-provoking comments of coaches such as Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich.

Note: Look for the next Stuart Elliott Report -- a "20 Questions" column -- on Wednesday, November 22.

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