The latest Sports Illustrated cover is about athletes’ national anthem protests, and it reads: “In a nation divided, the sports world is coming together.”
Sorry, SI. The only thing that came together in the sports world was the Internet’s disapproval of the magazine’s cover—from its artwork to unrealistic message of cohesion—among fans who followed NFL games on Sunday. In an attempt to defend the cover, executive editor Steve Cannella explained the reasoning behind it.
“What we wanted to capture with this cover, yes the news of the weekend,” Cannella said. “Yes, this was a weekend of division in many ways…but we thought the enduring message of what we saw, especially in the NFL, was this enduring message of unity.”
The cover doesn’t even come close to adequately reflecting that. For starters, it photoshopped together athletes from several different leagues, diffusing any specific focus on the NFL. Furthermore, many of the pictured athletes have zero real-life connections.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett headline the back row of the photo. Scan to the next row of athletes, and you’ll find two coaches: Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan next to Steve Kerr. Completing the randomness of the photo, a WNBA and MLB player are also thrown side by side.
The most prominent line of stars includes LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors and…Roger Goodell. Yes, the commissioner of the National Football League is seen locking arms with Curry, former MVP of the National Basketball League. Um, what.
We’re Unified against Half of America?
First, let’s consider the ethics. Curry and Goodell have nothing to do with each other. If we’re going to define “unity” as taking personal offense to President Trump’s tweets, than allow Rosie O’Donnell to serve as a welcoming committee for the multi-millionaire club so out of touch with everyday Americans.
Sure, LeBron, arguably the most famous basketball player on the planet, took a swipe at Trump on Twitter calling him a “bum.” It’s newsworthy, particularly to a sports publication such as Sports Illustrated. But what does that have to do with the NFL?
Short answer: nothing. It’s a conflation of athletes and coaches in a unified anti-Trump message the magazine appears to endorse. If that’s their position, fine. Media pandering isn’t a new revelation. In a business reliant on social media traffic (doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad), ratings, and clickbait, outlets favoring either side of the political aisle have been known to amplify what helps their interests.
However, the real story of the week as it pertained to sports involved more nuanced details about Trump, the NFL, and anthem protests. At one point during the weekend, the president had tweeted about the NFL 18 times in comparison to North Korea, which received only two presidential tweets. This is what the cover of arguably the most pre-eminent sports magazine needed to convey, while addressing the fact that the NFL world was anything but unified.
We’re So Unified We’ll Suppress Dissent
Former Army Ranger and current Steeler offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva broke from his team’s plan of standing hidden in the stadium tunnel, away from the field, during the national anthem. Overnight, his became the top-selling jersey in the NFL.
Yet after the game, head coach Mike Tomlin threw subtle shade at Villaneuva, telling the media he was looking for “100 percent participation.” Teammate James Harrison was quoted as saying, “We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously…but, I guess we weren’t.”
Either by his own volition or from internal pressure from the team, Villanueva addressed reporters the following day and said, “I made coach (Mike) Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only.”
Sadly, this is where the PC culture has taken us. A former Army Ranger who’s served three tours in Afghanistan to protect this country had to apologize because he stood for the national anthem separate from his boycotting team. The only apology owed should be to Villaneuva, and the only knees taken should be in prayer and gratitude that brave, selfless men like Villaneuva serve our country.
How did the sports world possibly come together when the same thing that turned Villanueva into a viral sensation and heroic icon for the majority of consumers of the NFL is the same thing—whether players admit it or not—that caused Villaneuva to express public regret the next day? It’s the very antithesis of coming together.
What We Really Need Unified Is the NFL’s Policies
Another example of the supposed unity in sports is Denver Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe. He posted a picture on Instagram of himself standing for Sunday’s anthem alongside teammates who were kneeling. The caption read, “Tough loss today. Even tougher when you are being labeled a racist for loving our country and paying tribute to the fallen.”
Then there are the everyday Americans, many reading this article, which chose not to watch the games on Sunday. Count this writer as one.
After 15 years of watching and reporting on the NFL, I did not watch Sunday’s games. Not as a boycott, but as an individual expression, like the dissenting players, to not give my viewership. It’s an immeasurable drop in the bucket to total ratings. But when 64 percent of the country agrees with Trump’s stance on standing for the anthem, according to a recent poll by the Remington Research Group, you have to wonder if that drop becomes a draining well for the league.
We all have our First Amendment rights as Americans, but the majority of us can’t just start a protest at work. That usually ends in one way: the unemployment line. The NFL needs to come up with a uniform policy about protests and freedom of expression, or else stop fining players for celebrating touchdowns. Otherwise, it’s just political.
People can claim NFL protests aren’t about the American flag and use verbal gymnastics to hammer that point. But when the flag is used in a protest, there’s no avoiding its significance to the people who hold that symbol in a different esteem. The sports world was anything but cohesive. Suggesting it was only distorts the truth and further magnifies division among the American people.