Before the Thursday Night Football cameras could pan across Lambeau Field for the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson gave a detailed account of the Green Bay Packers’ decision to link arms. “[Quarterback] Aaron Rodgers told us this is not a protest,” she said. “This is a unified demonstration of love and solidarity.”
The rival Chicago Bears stood on their side of the field with linked arms, and after the anthem concluded, commentator Jim Nantz said, “I’m sure you heard the chant throughout Lambeau: U.S.A.”
It certainly was a nice display, though no one will love it more than NFL executives and team owners. In just one week, they managed to turn league-wide protests against police brutality into an Up With People performance.
If you aren’t familiar with Up With People, it’s not for lack of trying by the NFL. Founded in 1965, the singing troupe performs dinner theater-level musical numbers in an effort to promote pleasantness and all-is-swellism. They make the Partridge Family look like GWAR, and it’s telling that the NFL hired Up With People to perform at not one but five separate Super Bowl halftime shows. And while their last Super Bowl performance was in 1986, the league is once again slathering itself head-to-toe with the Up With People ethos.
After Donald Trump called for players who kneeled during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be fired, owners reluctantly pushed back with a series of mealy-mouthed statements expressing their disappointment. Few of these could ever be mistaken as “pointed,” though this brief foray into decency seemed to energize the NFL’s owner class. After locking arms with players during the anthem on Sunday, bumper tycoon and Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan said, “I’m not a crusader, but this was a Rosa Parks moment for the Jaguars.” When Dallas Cowboys owner and anthropomorphic oil derrick Jerry Jones knelt with his team before the anthem on Monday Night Football, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell tweeted that it was a “[g]reat show of unity.”
The ongoing response has been an under-fire plutocrat’s dream. Everyone got to take credit for “doing the right thing” without having to acknowledge the specifics of what had gone wrong in the first place.
The recent NFL player protests were never about unity. When explaining the motive behind his original act of dissent, Colin Kaepernick wasn’t vague. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” he said during last year’s preseason. Over 13 months have passed since Kaepernick first took a knee, yet there is a willful ignorance as to what his and other NFL players’ protests have been about. The much-needed conversation regarding police brutality and accountability has been drowned out by cacophonous accusations of anti-Americanism and “disrespect,” and the NFL has been more than happy to fill this discursive vacuum with spectacle.
Football players linking arms in an announced non-protest is the NFL’s idea of progress, in that it helps the league progress away from having to deal with any serious issues. They got their Up With People performance, and they didn’t even have to fly the old troupe in to do it.
While certainly unintentional, the fact that this particular spectacle at Lambeau Field happened to also be a Donald Trump-endorsed show of “good” behavior is nonetheless disheartening.
The president isn’t a nonpartial observer when it comes to police brutality. At a July gathering of law enforcement officials on Long Island, Trump spoke as if he was leading a pro-brutality pep rally. “When you see these towns, and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough … Please don’t be too nice,” he said.
Today, the NFL is desperately promoting the abstract notion of “unity” because some of its players dared to protest the kind of violence described and encouraged above. The league’s official position on the matter is to ignore or discourage any opinion that distracts from its noble effort to smile and act like everything is terrific. As Up With People sang at Super Bowl XVI, “You and me are just people! Can’t you see we’re just people? We’ll always be just people!”
Now, keep your mouths shut and enjoy the football, people. It’s what the NFL wants.