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Springfield, MO

Opinion: Lessons from the NFL’s anthem debate

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I imagine the conversation that took place in my living room over what is now known as “the weekend of protest” is probably not too different than the talks other Americans were having with their families and friends at home, in football stadiums and sports bars, and at tailgating events. If I had been a fly on the wall in the pregame locker rooms as NFL players, coaches and franchise owners discussed how and when they would take the field – and if they would stand or kneel for the national anthem, and if they would do so as individuals or in solidarity – I imagine there, too, I would have heard incredibly compelling arguments on all sides of the issue.

What started as an individual act of peaceful protest when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem last season in response to a string of highly publicized wrongful death cases involving unarmed minorities and police, slowly became a larger conversation as increasing numbers of NFL players began doing the same. However, President Donald Trump’s remarks at a Huntsville, Alabama, rally on the eve of the weekend of protest brought the conversation front and center. By Saturday, 20 of the 32 NFL franchise owners had issued statements touting a common theme of unity, inclusiveness and duty to players and community to protect and defend the rights of free speech and expression. Three teams, deciding it was too difficult and politically charged to put team members in a situation where they must publicly take a position, perhaps in opposition with teammates, chose to stay in the locker rooms until after the anthem was played.

Countless others have passionately expressed opinions across social media platforms urging Americans to #StandForOurFlag or #TakeAKnee. Ralph Z. Hallow wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Times calling on fans to tell the NFL how they feel by boycotting their games.

Hallow writes, “When you walk out after standing for ‘Oh say can you see …’ the TV cameras will show you saying louder and better, the opposite of what the flag back-handers are saying.”

I have to admit, I’ve been fascinated by this debate. I think most of all because nearly every one of these arguments resonates with me on some level. While I think some have expressed themselves with more eloquence and diplomacy than others, all are attempting to communicate a message that matters.

As America continues to grapple with the weightier issues, I can offer only some simple truths and gratitude from the perspective of a communications professional and a small-business owner:

• The message we intend to communicate is not always the message that is received by others. Somehow, in all of this, Kaepernick’s original intent has become only a whisper, and patriotism and respect, or lack thereof, have come to the forefront.

• As an at-will employer in the state of Missouri, I’ve never once considered that the code of conduct expected of Springfield Business Journal employees may in some way infringe upon their personal freedoms. Team owners don’t own players, but they do own companies. Isn’t it within the realm of an employer to specify terms of employment?

• Unlike NFL teams, SBJ and most regional employers don’t have a payroll in the hundreds of millions of dollars with an outrageously small and specialized pool of applicants. But we are alike in that our teams comprise our most precious asset. Isn’t it our role and best interest to care about the things they care about?

• My small business is not a franchise and therefore is not governed by the rules of an umbrella organization like the NFL. This is a differentiating factor for many regional businesses. While this is freeing in some respects, it also means it is on us to consider the consequences and implications of our policies and our actions.

• The decisions and/or mistakes I may make as a company owner are not nationally televised and therefore are not subject to the public scrutiny of millions of people. For this, I am eternally grateful. However, social media has the potential to put our companies and all of its representatives in a more public spotlight.

For this, I have a hashtag: #PlayByTheRules.

Springfield Business Journal Publisher Jennifer Jackson can be reached at jjackson@sbj.net.

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