It is barely the third week of the NFL season, but already social media is an ocean of frustration with the league.
A Seattle Seahawks player, who like many others has come under scrutiny for wearing a “slave-like” accessory on his helmet, gave the matter a grand finale on Sunday afternoon by entering an off-field fight and endangering his team’s winning chances in a late-game comeback against the Rams.
It took six days of outcry for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to condemn player demonstrations in a lengthy, postgame press conference, and little more than a day for the NFL to join the rest of professional sports leagues in inviting those who own basketball, hockey and soccer franchises to throw on their jerseys and take to the field.
There are no competitive reasons that should push the NFL to be more assertive. Yet we have discovered in recent years that the weather means little to the attention paid to the league, if only because the cold doesn’t intervene as much as the hot.
One argument on Twitter, used to defend Mike Pouncey’s hit on Davante Adams, was that, unlike in July, fans should have far more critical faculties in November than they do in September. Another strong case is offered by Darelle Revis, an NFL middle linebacker who began his career in Seattle. In July, he told ESPN he was in favor of kneeling, not sitting, during the national anthem. “My dream,” he said, “is to be part of the team and for the team to know how much I love the national anthem and what I feel is our country.”
Mr. Revis has frequently flirted with the hypocrisy of “proud to be an American” talk, and another current Patriot, the outspoken, strip-sack-seeking Devin McCourty, still acknowledges what he calls a “complicated” feeling about America. Yet few of his teammates or coaches are talking about Mr. McCourty’s preferred form of protest.
The same holds true for Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback whose protest against police brutality raised the stakes for the league and who, once it became a subject in the media, commanded far less attention than he did in the weeks leading up to a protest-related Saturday Night Live appearance by a football-playing impersonator. This week, Mr. Kaepernick’s Nike marketing deal is underscored by a full-page ad in The New York Times by his mother, Teresa, urging her son to exercise “common sense” and thank “all of those who make my son the person he is.”
If the league and its players are anything like they were last season, there could be three or four of these controversies by the end of the season. That fact places added pressure on the league to respond to the uproar, to provide a relatively rosy assessment of the behavior of its athletes. The league wants to show unity, but the evolving position of many NFL players makes it hard to provide assurances that NFL’s image will not be damaged by statements from some of its players, or actions from players that are deemed inappropriate by others.
This is where rule changes are essential. Last week, a Denver Broncos member of the personnel department, Brandon Marshall, was fined $13,369 for missing too many meetings. The problem is not that he went to an opposing team’s practice, had lunch with players on the opposing team or is a part of the team’s travel squad — the most obscure of logistical errors that, on their own, would have cost him nothing. The problem is that Mr. Marshall is also an outspoken supporter of Colin Kaepernick and his players who kneel during the national anthem.
A rule change that reduced the responsibility of coaches and general managers for dealing with their own players who made off-field mistakes would provide some clout for NFL teams to insist that players who are disruptive to the other players on the field remain away. In other words, the leverage of a new rule change may be more important than any policy or rule regarding player behavior.
We will get plenty of cartoons and rap song parodies of Richard Sherman over the next few weeks, but none will be quite as resonant as the image of that empty stadium at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. The most potent image to emerge is of football and its millions of fans in contrast to the nation they consider home.