Recently, a groundbreaking ceremony was held to kick off construction of the Las Vegas Raiders’ new multi-billion-dollar stadium. The stadium is viewed as the crowning jewel of efforts by Las Vegas to lure professional sports teams to the city.
Yes, the Golden Knights were here first and are doing quite well, both on the ice and in attendance, but professional hockey is at best in fourth place of the major professional sports. Until recently, football was America’s most popular sport.
That popularity has taken a major hit recently as both attendance in stadiums and viewership on television has dipped double-digit percentage points. Some surveys now list professional baseball as once again more popular than the NFL. Many point to the recent protests by NFL players during the national anthem as the major reason for the downturn. The protests were started with a singular demonstration by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
When Kaepernick first started his protest, I tried to come up with a reason to not be upset with the way he chose to make a political statement. In the end, I failed, I couldn’t justify what Kaepernick did. I had followed him since his college days at the University of Nevada, Reno.
He had attended school there the same time as my youngest daughter. I attended several of his college games, including a thrashing of UNLV in Las Vegas his senior year. He was an electric college player and it was exciting to see him play. I was a fan. He then was drafted by the NFL team that I followed, the 49ers.
When he broke into the starting lineup to replace Alex Smith he took the NFL by storm and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and he seemed destined for years of greatness. Unfortunately, that destiny became derailed. The 49ers general manager at the time, Trent Baalke, got into a dispute with head coach Jim Harbaugh and Harbaugh was let go. Then poor drafts by Baalke led to a depleted roster of talent. Kaepernick had surgery on his shoulder and lost his starting job while he was recovering.
During this downward spiral in the league standings by the 49ers, Kaepernick decided in August 2016 to start his protest.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL media in an exclusive interview after the game.
“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.”
The 49ers then issued a statement about Kaepernick’s decision: “The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
The then-Niners coach, Chip Kelly, told reporters that Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the national anthem is “his right as a citizen” and said, “it’s not my right to tell him not to do something.”
The NFL also released a statement at that time, “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.”
Professional athletes have used sports venues for political protests long before Kaepernick decided to take a knee. If you are of a certain age you will remember almost 50 years ago the protests by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City.
After having won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter running event, they turned on the podium to face their flags, and to hear the American national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Each athlete raised a black-gloved fist and kept them raised until the anthem had finished. They were protesting what they felt were human rights violations of black Americans.
Whether Kaepernick was right or wrong will be judged by history. Certainly, there are still issues in this country with regard to race. As other players joined in his protest by kneeling during the anthem, the focus turned away from the issues that Kaepernick was trying to bring attention to and instead became a referendum on disrespecting America, our first responders, our veterans, and our military.
Essentially, his actions accomplished nothing to promote a dialogue regarding race relations and instead morphed into your average NFL fan feeling that the joy of watching a football game was now gone, replaced with players protesting a political agenda that in some cases they knew little about at the expense of disrupting the game. I, like many others, are offended by wealthy athletes who are playing a game take a knee during the anthem. Many fans have chosen instead to simply quit attending games or watching games on TV.
The other side of this equation is those who feel the NFL is being hypocritical by saying on one hand that the players can protest and yet, on the other hand, Kaepernick has been “blackballed” from the NFL and is not playing. Those that believe in the players’ right to protest are also offended and they too have turned away from the NFL.
The NFL has other serious issues to deal with that have ramifications on viewership and the league’s future success. Long-term brain damage from concussions that is now showing up in former players could be very costly in lawsuits to the NFL and its owners.
Add to that the issues with poor officiating, wrong instant replay calls, off-the-field issues with domestic violence by players, other crimes by players, a lack of marquee stars that appeal to fans, and the league is a real mess.
If the league can come up with a solution regarding the players’ protests during the anthem, if they can change equipment to help prevent injuries and concussions, if they can solve the off-field issues with players, and if they can get full-time trained officials, they might once again regain their fan base and be the number one professional sport.
Vegas better hope so, they placed a bet of billions on Raider black.
Tim Burke is a businessman, philanthropist, educator and Pahrump resident. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org