Sport that Unifies by David Montgomery


I do not understand how there can be a shred of sympathy or support for professional football players who kneel during the National Anthem. Leaving aside the vagueness of whatever message they are trying to send, their implicit claim that employees have a right to make personal political statements on company time while acting as representatives of the company is nonsense.

By now, the strength of my political, religious and moral convictions should be pretty clear, as well as my willingness to speak my mind. But I knew exactly what rules I had to obey when I was in front of clients or could be identified with the company that employed me. Any political activity or symbolism was way out of bounds as a matter of principle. I was never to speak about subjects on which I had less than complete professional qualification except in personal and private conversations. The opinions and feelings of my clients were to be treated with respect at all times, as a matter of common decency and of self-preservation. My employers were always adamant about maintaining a considerate and courteous image, and I knew that I had many competitors who would be happy to exploit any distance that I let develop between clients and myself.

I certainly would have been disciplined if I started a public presentation on trends on gasoline prices by praying for the babies that would die in abortions that day. Nor would I ever expect to be invited back. Yet I doubt that the professional athletes taking a knee to publicize “Black Lives Matter” are stating convictions any stronger than mine about abortion.

Nor do I see being unfairly attacked by a political figure as a mitigating factor in perpetuating bad behavior. I have been there. Senator McCain once rose in the Senate to accuse me of being paid off by oil companies to reach the conclusions I published about a bill that he had introduced. But I did not start every subsequent public appearance by repeating that the McCain-Lieberman bill would cost 3 percent of GDP and do nothing to solve climate change. Yet professional football players doubled-down on disrupting the National Anthem in order to get back at President Trump for calling them out about their protests.

If they really cared about the ills they protest, football players might try doing something that actually has a cost. They might, for example, collectively donate their salaries from one game to an organization that does something to create safer communities or to keep black youth from committing the crimes that bring them to the attention of police.

Or, if a player feels so strongly that he cannot play football without expressing himself, he might just refuse to play until the wrong he protests is righted. That, at least, would show more respect for paying customers than acting in a way that diminishes their enjoyment of the game. A game, by the way, that they paid top dollar and possibly waited for years to attend.

I know what it is like to be told to keep quiet. I had an employer inform me that I could not write opinion pieces for a newspaper without prior review and censorship, that anything I said in public belonged to them. I left that company, voluntarily, shortly thereafter. I did not continue publishing and expecting no consequences. Yet professional football players seem to expect their teammates and employers to tolerate whatever they feel like doing.

To be clear, I am convinced that NFL players who “take a knee” or refuse to come on the field for the National Anthem are cheating their fans.

Not long ago, my wife (a Navy veteran) and I attended the Navy-Air Force football game. That was the kind of experience football is supposed to be. No protests, no disruption, everyone standing and veterans saluting while we sang the National Anthem — in tune and with respect, by the way – and everyone present feeling a sense of brotherhood and shared enjoyment. We watched young men, all of whom had the much higher calling of preparing to serve their country, give everything they had to win the game. Navy pulled way ahead by the half, Air Force figured out the Navy offense well enough to stop one or two drives and caught up, then went ahead. Then Navy scored the winning touchdown with 16 seconds on the clock.

The Navy quarterback, by my count, ran for at least two touchdowns and well over 100 yards, and still threw a perfect pass to end the game. He does not expect to sign for $435,000 or $10 million when he graduates, and he comes to the game expecting to do nothing but play the best football he can for his team and the crowd.

While there, I did not think about the difficulties of getting true tax reform, or the polarization of American politics, or any of the other depressing political topics of the day. I did think about this column, I confess, as I was conscious of that day and that game being a time when I was part of the kind of country I remember, one where everyone acknowledged they were part of a bigger whole.

Esther and I were on the Gold side, which those who attend Navy football know put us in the middle of Air Force fans. While others in America are defining themselves into more and more divided identity groups, we felt kinship even with the Air Force fans around us. We knew that we shared interest in football, good feelings toward the teams, dedication to our country and respect for its symbols.

That is what the overpaid NFL players who take a knee are stealing from their fans. They have taken away the opportunity of spending an afternoon enjoying sports and being part of a community with common interests. With all this whining about safe spaces in colleges and searching for microaggressions in every kind of normal behavior, you would think that we could at least watch sports without having political theatrics forced upon us.

And the owners need to acquire the backbone of other employers who insist their employees show respect to their customers and make that a requirement for anyone who wants to wear their uniform.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.


Letters to Editor

  1. Bill Andersen says:

    If only the NFL players on all 32 teams were able to read, this piece should be required to be read aloud by each player, individually, in front of the team owner or GM before collecting another pay check. Unfortunately, the team would have to appoint a reader for them. Where else would fat men with degrees in basket-weaving be able to be paid millions of dollars for 16 weeks worth of play?

    • Michael Brunner says:

      I didn’t know Joe Flacco could not read, was fat and had a degree in basket weaving. Do you know if that is a popular major with the students on the football team? Is there something wrong with being a basket weaver?

    • Ron Jordan says:

      Sometimes people who see a scene or a movement wish to see what is happening through the rose colored glasses they wear each day. Many people want to continue to believe the protest is about our flag then the conversation ends with me and others that believe in our First Amendment. The facts are the players have a stage to bring light to the fact that black men and woman are being killed, unarmed, that for the most part policemen/women are going scot free. If one choses to believe their narrative then the conversation will not begin because they can’t get beyond their own bigotry and racism. Once a person can look at this issue with the clarity of why this movement started then the dialog can happen and people can continue to have a real conversation about race and the division that is more pervasive than in any time in my adult life.

  2. Bob Jackson says:

    Well said.

  3. Deirdre LaMotte says:

    Perfect.Here we have a President who is insane and this columnist wants us to know how inappropriate it is for football players to kneel. And he also slips in that John McCain
    is quite aware of him. Wow. So, at this point we have North Korea and Iran mad at us, the environment being sold to the highest bidder and woman’s reproductive
    rights being trashed again…and this is what we are worried about? How about Black men being gunned down and juries letting police off scott free? This issue has become an
    all to frequent occurance. How can one be offended at democratic protest if one believes in Democracy? I love that he calls the players “overpaid”. I wonder if this is a term he has used
    about Wall Street bankers? I bet not.

  4. Maria Wood says:

    This column appears to have been written by someone who did not bother to do even the most basic research about the topic. There is absolutely no mystery to what the – silent, respectful – choice to kneel is about: it is in protest of police violence. Simple, clear, I certainly hope not controversial. It is entirely unclear how on earth “NFL players who ‘take a knee’ or refuse to come on the field for the National Anthem are cheating their fans.” They are not refusing to play. They are not causing a ruckus. They are doing nothing in any way disruptive. Out of what are the fans supposedly cheated?

    The columnist, who complains that football players should donate their salaries instead of kneeling, apparently failed to do a basic google search on Colin Kaepernick, the originator of these protests, before writing this nonsensical screed. Otherwise, he would have immediately found Kaepernick’s website, which announces in extremely large font, “‘I will donate one million dollars plus all the proceeds of my jersey sales from the 2016 season to organizations working in oppressed communities, 100k a month for 10 months.’ – Colin Kaepernick.”

    Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former teammate, who joined Kaepernick in the decision to kneel early on, eloquently stated why they made this choice: “It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.”

    The racist overtones in this column are extremely troubling, speaking of young black men committing crimes that draw the attention of the police as though all young black men commit crimes, or as though young white men never do, and most importantly, as though drawing the attention of the police is somehow equivalent to deserving of violence, brutality, or even of lethal force.

    The wild illogic of this column and of other anti-democratic, frankly un-American, opposition to the incredibly mild-mannered, well thought out, and justified protests shows that those who object do so on no reasonable grounds and with little thought, insight, or, indeed, information.

  5. James Nick says:

    It would seem Mr Montgomery and his fellow travellers are missing the point. The NFL player protests are intended to draw attention to an epidemic of police violence, of shooting unarmed black people, and a rigged judicial system. By the very fact that the players are provoking media coverage, discussion, and editorial comment shows that their protests are working and are widely successful. Mission accomplished.

  6. Jonathan Chace says:

    Mr. Anderson’s letter should not go unrefuted. We can have an honest debate over balancing the exercise of constitutionally-protected free speech and the rights of employers to require certain conduct in the workplace. But it’s another thing to demean the literacy of professional athletes who, as public figures, choose to call attention to a national issue such as the death of unarmed Black people at the hands of police.

    Football players have to be smart and think on their feet. Perhaps Mr. Anderson should acquaint himself with Jacob Tamme (Atlanta Falcons) who graduated from the University of Kentucky in 3 years in Integrated Strategic Communications and then got a M.B.A. Or Richard Sherman (Seattle Seahawks) who graduated with a 4.2 G.P.A. from Stanford and is working on his Masters Degree. Or Sam Acho (Chicago Bears) who graduated from the University of Texas with a 3.62 G.P.A., speaks three languages and was named as one of the 20 smartest athletes in sports. Or Ben Watson (New Orleans Saints) who secured a finance degree from Duke and Georgia Universities and tests at an I.Q. of 170. Or Stefen Wisniewski (Philadelphia Eagles) who graduated from Penn State with a 3.91 G.P.A. and was an Academic All American for three years. One wonders if there might be something else going here. What would Mr. Anderson have said about Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Tommy Lee Jones?

    Just a bunch of illiterate troublemakers?

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