The First NFL Sunday of the year began and ended in familiar fashion. First, the country woke up to its president continuing his attacks on NFL players who protest against racial inequality and police brutality during the national anthem. Later that evening, Aaron Rodgers broke the Chicago Bears' heart. The bookends are an example of the duality at play for football fans, what makes the sport so frustrating, and what makes it must see TV.
Not long after Trump tweeted this misleading ratings info—Thursday's Philadelphia Eagles-Atlanta Falcons game was delayed nearly an hour by rain, and people are generally watching less of everything on television, not just the NFL—ESPN reported that the league had no intentions of altering its anthem policy this season. This, after putting on hold a change to the policy the NFL passed in May that would have required all players to stand, or remain in the locker room. Any player who did anything else could have been punished at both his team's and the league's discretion.
Sunday broadcasters CBS and FOX have said they will not show the national anthem as part of their coverage—although FOX indicated it might show it for special occasions like Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving—nor will ESPN for Monday Night Football. NBC did show it for its broadcast on Thursday, and everyone stood. Likewise, on Sunday, only two players across the league kneeled, Miami Dolphins teammates Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson.
It's unclear if the days of league-wide protesting are over, but is becoming less consistent, despite Trump's tweets to the contrary. The most visible person is not even in the league. It has now moved from a legitimate movement of awareness to a cudgel the president (and others) wields to create further discord and division. Not surprisingly, since the protests have been incorrectly framed as anti-military and anti-American almost from the outset—and repeatedly mischaracterized as such by no less than the President of the United States—the original message often gets lost in the debate over whether making it is appropriate in the first place, especially for sports fans who just want to "stick to sports."
Unfortunately, that is all but impossible if you want to be an active and engaged citizen. You can try to bury your head in the sand, but the whole purpose of players using their platform to reach an audience they otherwise would not be able to reach, is to say: Hey, you should be paying attention to this, because it's fucked up! Saying that our police force should not discriminate based on race—to the point of unjustified killings, no less— should not really be a controversial thing, but it has become the controversy in the league, precisely because of the way it's been framed by those in power (those who, by the way, should be listening hardest to what these players are saying). This has in turn made many sports fans miserable, even on the start of a great day of wall-to-wall football.
Which is what made Aaron Rodgers's performance at the end of the night, so wonderful. We write on this topic of activism a lot—because it is important, because justice is important, and having an athlete deliver that message makes it no less important—but that does not make us lesser sports fans. Personally, I am a Jets fan, and have continued to be a Jets fan against all odds for three decades. I am wearing a Jets hoodie over a Jets t-shirt right now and may or may not be wearing green underwear. Which is to say: I am fucking psyched for tonight's game, for the debut of my beautiful large adult quarterback of the future Sam Darnold, even though I am fully aware that the Jets will find some way to absolutely break my heart.
I love football; there is nothing like watching a quarterback throw a pinpoint pass to a receiver 60 yards away and watching every single player advance up the field like a wave. It's beautiful, somehow chaotic and precise all at once. When you add a narrative to that kind of action like, say, the star quarterback getting injured, and carted off the field, and returning in the second half to lead a comeback win on a bum leg, it's just about the best way to spend three hours of your time.
Aaron Rodgers, on one leg, makes all the bullshit around the NFL worth it. Your favorite team, beating your bitter rival at the last minute, makes all the bullshit around the NFL worth it. I hope to God Sam Darnold makes all the bullshit around the NFL worth it. I don't know if you truly can compartmentalize it all, or if that is even the right thing to do, but I do think that you can recognize that these protests are vitally important, now more than ever, and become increasingly frustrated that they constantly get misconstrued as divisive, while still enjoying the actual game. One does not preclude the other; It is in fact a testament to how compelling this game is, and these players are, when you can still marvel at it, despite how angry the stuff in its orbit can make you.