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The NFL’s latest anthem decision proves the league will never escape from a problem of its own making

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The league’s inability to treat itself as just a business threatens to overshadow yet another season.

Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Somewhere along the line, the NFL came to see itself as more than a sports league.

The league’s decision today to “compromise” on their anthem stance is only the latest evidence that this league is incapable of looking at itself merely as a business, and by being a business, protecting its business interests. Any competently-run business would take a hard look at what the controversy over Colin Kaepernick (and later, a raft of other players) kneeling during the anthem was actually doing to their business, discuss how to protect their business interest and make the largest possible slice of their customers happy, and then move to put together a proposal that accomplished those goals.

Above all, though, any business with a competent public relations team would seek to get the anthem issue out of the news cycle permanently by coming up with a solution that would either grant those on the sideline the right to protest whatever they want without fear of consequence, codify a punishment for anyone who kneeled, or choose the easy way out and put teams back in the locker room during the anthem, ensuring there could be no big public displays in front of hundreds of cameras.

What the NFL has done, instead, is create something so haphazard and ill-thought out that they’ve virtually guaranteed the next season will once again be taken over by a firestorm of controversy. They did it to themselves, again.

Let us take a moment, as difficult as it is, and set aside how you feel about players standing for the anthem. If you are in favor of having every player forced to stand for the anthem because you view kneeling or other kinds of expression to be disrespectful to the flag or even the country, this solution cannot possibly be appealing to you. If you were in favor of giving players the freedom to express themselves during an anthem to support action against police brutality and/or systemic racism, this is deeply troubling to you. If you were in favor of just never hearing about the anthem again in the context of the NFL and “sticking to sports,” if such a thing is even possible, this could not possibly be what you were hoping for. Players and the NFLPA are already up in arms, former league executives are puzzled, and the media is in the early stages of what promises to be another scrutiny-heavy round of coverage.

Who, exactly, is this supposed to make happy? When players inevitably kneel or raise a fist or link arms, what will teams be fined? How will teams discipline players, and at what point does that discipline draw a massive round of media coverage, especially if it differs between teams? What happens when players who stay in the locker room are counted and asked why they stayed in the locker room? What happens when someone thinks to ask, as many already are, why the NFL does not suspend concession sales and demand the same attention and respect from fans? What happens when it’s revealed, as it inevitably will be, that the NFL and teams really are making this whole thing up as they go along?

The only way this decision makes any sense at all is if you view it through the prism that league staff and owners appear to view it: As a paragon of America, as a quasi-extension of the federal government and particularly the military, and as a pure embodiment of American machismo and patriotism. The NFL is not going to give back Department of Defense dollars, it is not going to relinquish its imagined place atop the moral pyramid in an increasingly fractured and angry country, and it is not going to stop conflating itself with a military it desperately wants to emulate despite its hilarious inability to withstand the breeze of mild criticism. They want the flag to be synonymous with America and the American military, the NFL shield to be synonymous with integrity and support of this country, and nothing to be complex or nuanced or divisive in any way.

Their solution, in the end, is to talk a big game about their commitment to patriotism and social justice without evincing much of an actual commitment to either. The hollowness at the center of the enterprise is never more evident than when 30 of the richest men in America (the 49ers owner abstained, and technically no one man owns the Packers) and dozens upon dozens of highly-paid professionals in the employ of the league come up with a solution like this that threatens to overshadow the only thing about the NFL that anyone has ever found genuinely appealing: The actual football.

The NFL could have taken a dozen roads out of this mess of their own making, some of which would have been lauded as brave and others condemned as cowardly, but any of them taking real steps toward quieting the controversy or taking a genuine stand. The fact that they chose this road tells you everything about how much this league wants to make everyone happy, and much more about why they never will.