There was plenty of hard-hitting, taunting and questionable play-calling on the first Sunday of the NFL regular season, and that doesn’t even include what happened on the field.
Not only did the NFL fail in the offseason to resolve a festering 2-year-old problem with pregame protests, but the league has now reportedly given up entirely on requiring players to stand for the national anthem this year.
The result was a game day that looked like a replay from 2017. Two Miami players took a knee for the national anthem, President Trump tweeted anti-NFL remarks and former quarterback Colin Kaepernick dominated the discussion.
“Wow, NFL first game ratings are way down over an already really bad last year comparison,” the president tweeted Sunday. He was referring to Thursday night’s NFL opener featuring the Philadelphia Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons. “Viewership declined 13%, the lowest in over a decade. If the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back? Otherwise worse!”
Thursday Night Football’s contest on Fox suffered a 13 percent drop from the first game of the 2017 season, a decline attributed in part to a one-hour weather delay.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick refused to yield the spotlight, first by starring in a Nike ad released last week, then by cheering Miami Dolphins wide receivers Kenny Stills and Alfred Wilson for kneeling during the anthem before Sunday’s game.
“My Brothers continue to show their unwavering strength by fighting for the oppressed! They have not backed down, even when attacked and intimidated,” Kaepernick tweeted. “Their courage will move the world forward!”
Efforts to resolve the protest issue bogged down after the NFL Players Association balked at the policy overhaul released May 23 that required players to “stand and show respect for the flag and anthem” or face fines.
In July, the NFL announced that it had placed the policy on hold in order to discuss the issue with the NFLPA, but ESPN’s Adam Schefter cited league sources Sunday who said that no policy change would be made for the season.
The only silver lining Sunday for the NFL was that there were far fewer kneelers in Week 1 than at any time in 2017. Aside from the two Dolphins, it appeared that no other players had taken a knee as of Sunday afternoon.
Why fewer players took knees is unclear, but it could be the payoff for the NFL’s $89 million social justice package adopted by team owners in March, a deal negotiated with Players Coalition leaders Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin.
The drop-off could also be a reaction to the cautionary tale of Eric Reid, the free-agent safety who has yet to be signed after his kneeling and vocal support in 2017 for Kaepernick, who has not played since the 2016 regular season.
Like Kaepernick, Reid has filed a grievance with the NFL. At the same time, Reid has yet to draw the kudos, honors and Nike deal that have followed Kaepernick, who played in a Super Bowl and enjoyed a far higher profile than most other players.
Kaepernick’s image on the left as a civil rights icon grew as the star of Nike’s two-minute ad released Monday, which put the protest controversy back in the spotlight days before the start of the regular season.
Reaction to the ad has been mixed. Advertising research firm Edison Trends said the sportswear giant’s online sales grew 31 percent over Labor Day weekend despite bashing on social media, including shots of customers destroying their Nike gear.
“Both this year and last year, online sales of Nike products across the web hit a low point on Sunday of Labor Day weekend, rising again on Monday and Tuesday. But this year, they climbed 31% between Sunday and Tuesday, besting 2017’s 17%” increase over the same two-day period, Edison wrote.
On the other hand, Nike stock plummeted from $82 to $79 a share after the ad was released, resulting in a loss of over $5 billion in market capitalization. It has yet to rebound to its pre-Labor Day levels.
In addition, a Morning Consult brand analysis released Thursday found that Nike’s favorability dropped by double digits after the Kaepernick ad was released, declining across every demographic, including Nike customers, black consumers and millennials.
“Before Kaepernick was revealed as the face of Nike’s campaign, only 2 percent of Americans reported hearing something negative about Nike,” said Morning Consult. “After the launch, that jumped to 33 percent. As the negative buzz set in, consumer sentiment followed, with favorability and purchasing consideration dropping.”
A plurality of 38 percent said they saw the ad as a publicity stunt, compared with 32 percent who said it was to recognize Kaepernick, but only 26 percent said the ad campaign would cause them to watch fewer NFL games.
At least one university, the College of the Ozarks, dropped its Nike uniforms last week in response to the ad campaign, which features a photo of Kaepernick with the caption “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
“In their new ad campaign, we believe Nike executives are promoting an attitude of division and disrespect toward America,” college President Jerry C. Davis said in a statement. “If Nike is ashamed of America, we are ashamed of them. We also believe that those who know what sacrifice is all about are more likely to be wearing a military uniform than an athletic uniform.”
The mayor of Kenner, Louisiana, last week banned the purchase of Nike products for use in the city’s parks facilities.
• Matthew Paras and Victor Morton contributed to this report.
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