Kevin O’Neill: Backfire

October 2nd, 2017


The opinions expressed in this article are mine. They are not necessarily shared by other Stocks and Jocks hosts and contributors.




(of an engine) undergo a mistimed explosion in the cylinder or exhaust.

“a car backfired in the road”

(of a plan or action) rebound adversely on the originator; have the opposite effect to what was intended.

“overzealous publicity backfired on her”

Take a Knee Has Backfired

When Colin Kaepernick began the NFL’s anthem protest wave a little more than a year ago, he said:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

One might disagree with his message. One might disagree with his method. However, there was no denying that the man had a purpose; and I believe he honestly believed in both his cause and his method.

Fast forward to October, 2017… As more NFL players have made Kaepernick’s protest into a movement that was growing even before President Trump fueled it with his comments at a September 22nd political rally, the purpose of the protest has been lost to a debate over honoring the flag and proper decorum when the anthem is played. Comparatively, discussion of police treatment of minorities is trivial.

We know NFL players are protesting, but who or what are they protesting? Is it Trump? Is it an expression of unity with Kaepernick? Is anyone discussing oppression of black people and people of color or bodies in the street, or is the conversation about the method of protest and whether the NFL should allow it? The original purpose of the protests has been lost.

The Sound

The sound of an engine backfiring is distinct, loud explosion. The backfire of NFL protests is equally distinct and loud. Yes, it’s the sound of booing when players take a knee for the anthem; but there is more. It’s also the louder than ever roar of the crowd when the flag is unfurled. It’s the sound of more people singing the anthem than ever before. How can the protesters counter that? They can’t. The subject has been changed.

The problem is that the NFL players chose a provocative act for their protest. That those who cherish the country and, therefore, its symbols took offense at the provocation was entirely predictable. It isn’t insensitive. It isn’t racist. It’s taking precisely the offense that the protest was intended to provoke.

The majority reaction should not have surprised anyone. The method of protest never was a method that would sway the majority. Many of the people who don’t understand why others are offended have the same reactions when their own favored institutions are attacked. Even when it’s deserved, dare to criticize their families, their alma maters, or their political affiliates. What reaction will you get?

The Big Mistake

Protest without action plan is shallow. Complaining without a solution is an unappealing personal trait. Have many players become involved outside of their anthem protests? Have they given their spare time to the cause? Have they engaged with law enforcement, city officials, civic leaders, and activists?

The football players are a bunch of amateurs in the protest biz. They have failed to anything other than create a more intense pregame ritual of patriotism.

The NFL hasn’t done better. The league has allowed itself to be neutered by failing to enforce its own policy. Was there a choice? Isn’t this a free speech issue?

Writing for the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), HR legal expert Shari Lau clarified the First Amendment issue.

No federal statute protects private employees who want to express their political opinions at work. The right to free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution only guards against government censorship. So while public employers must be aware of their limitations, private companies have no such obligations under the amendment. Therefore, when Joe Employee says he has the right to free speech at work, you can confidently tell him otherwise.

Further, the NFL Operations Manual says the following.

The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem.

During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.

Why is the NFL allowing the players to violate the code with impunity? Here is NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy’s absurd explanation. “It’s policy. It’s not a rule. I think where people are getting confused is, rules, that’s like holding or defensive pass interference, that’s a rule. This is policy.”

McCarthy is correct that policies and rules are different, but his reasoning is wrong… as in Management 101 wrong. Policies are high level statements of what an organization requires. Boards of Directors and/or the C-Suite specify policies which are commended to managers who make rules to support them. Policies are not suggestions. Policies guide the rules.

Regardless of that important distinction, a policy is worthless if the league can’t or won’t enforce it. A policy that nobody follows is a waste of paper and ink..


The NBA says it will enforce its policy, as it did when it suspended Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1996. Abdul-Rauf said standing for the anthem was against his Islamic beliefs because the flag was a symbol of oppression and that the United States had a long history of tyranny.  Eventually the parties reached a compromise. Abdul-Rauf stood during the playing of the national anthem; but he closed his eyes, looked downward, and prayed.

But the league is not stopping at the hard line. In addition to enforcing its policy, the NBA will provide a forum for players to take a stance in different ways. Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum issued a memo last week that stated:

  • The league office will determine how to deal with any possible instance in which a player, coach, or trainer does not stand for the anthem.
  • Individual teams “do not have the discretion to waive” the rule that players, coaches and staff stand for the anthem.
  • The league has the discretion to discipline players who violate the rule.
  • The league does not want teams independently disciplining players.
  • The league suggests that teams address the current political climate by having players and coaches give a joint pregame address at their first home games, a message of unity and how the team is committed to bringing the community together this season.
  • The league also suggests teams might prepare a video tribute or public service announcement featuring “team leadership speaking about the issues they care about.”

The commissioner’s office sent a separate letter to all teams outlining six ongoing NBA community initiatives. The letter encouraged leaders from each team to provide any further ideas on how the NBA can be a presence in communities and assist with issues in society.

Better still, the league and the players union are working together. Commissioner Adam Silver and the union’s Executive Director Michele Roberts have pledged their joint support for players who address issues that matter to them. Tatum’s memo does the same, suggesting several other ways teams can develop their own impactful community programs “including mentorship programs, community gatherings, using basketball to build bridges between segments of a community and inviting community leaders to speak to the teams.”

I predict that the NBA’s approach will have impact. It will not backfire.