Keith Strudler: Both Sides

Aug 16, 2017

The other side. That phrase, or a variant thereof, has gotten an unusual amount of play in the past several days. We’ve been told, by the President, no less, to look at both sides when assessing blame. Most every mediator or manager wants to hear both sides before making a decision. No matter your posture or position, it seems there’s always the other side to consider, even if it sometimes seems intuitively one-sided. Like the world is round. Or ice cream is delicious.

So the idea of looking at both sides is nothing particularly new, even if it often lacks the analytic importance it purports to have or the open-mindedness it implies. At times, it’s simply an exercise. Right now, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is considering both sides. Such is nothing entirely new for someone who oversees America's most invasive and popular sports property, where it is always relevant to consider the widest possible audience. In fact, one might suggest that any leader of an organization that serves such a wide population has to operate with a big tent philosophy, something that's often easier said than done. Just ask the Republicans.

Currently, Goodell’s diplomacy focuses on one of the league’s favorite marketing strategies – patriotism. Specifically, it’s in reference to a growing cadre of NFL athletes who are choosing to sit for the national anthem played before games. This is nothing new for the league, since it's spent what seems like a lifetime last year threading the needle on perhaps the least important part of the affair. And I’m including the halftime show.  Following in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps, Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch sat during a preseason game during the anthem. Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett also sat for a preseason match and has said he will do so all season. Not surprisingly, Bennett said the events of last weekend in Charlottesville influenced his decision. I’d imagine many more athletes might follow suit this season, depending on the direction of the nation and the directives of its commander in chief, as it is. Roger Goodell will need to prepare for this all season, perhaps in far greater numbers than he did last season. I’d imagine other league commissioners and team owners will similarly prepare, although none has either the audience share nor the positioning of the NFL, where country is always the 12th man on the field.

This became and issue with Commissioner Goodell when he took questions at an open forum with Arizona Cardinals club ticket holders. In other words, people that spend a lot of money to watch the team play.  In that forum, self-professed long time ticket holder Bruce Olson asked if players would continue to sit and what Goodell was going to do about it. To which the commissioner replied that while the anthem was special to him, we have to understand the other side, that people have rights and the league wants to respect them. Goodell continued about making positive change in communities, or something like that. All of which superfan Bruce Olsen found overtly politically correct – and I’m paraphrasing – and suggested that while athletes can hold whatever view they want, but they still need to stand up, as he put it, “like a man.”

There’s far too much there to analyze without a book contract. Which I’d like, by the way. Olson’s thoughts, which aren’t uncommon, bring racial, national, and gender ideologies all to the forefront. By Olson’s way of thinking, no matter what you think about what’s happening in places like Charlottesville and what you think about the President’s tepid reply, you are obligated as man to stand up for your country during its theme song. That is simply the price of admission.

I’m not at all surprised by Olson’s comments, nor the fact that a whole lot of people – football fans and otherwise – will agree with them. What’s more interesting is Goodell’s efforts to recognize them without inherently agreeing, or disagreeing. And doing so without marginalize either a) the rest of your fan base, or b) your workforce that may decided to sit as well. This might get trickier if a couple of athletes turns into a full-blown sit in. I’m guessing we’re maybe one White House press conference away from that.

If that happens, I expect Goodell might have to stop simply seeing both sides and actually pick one. Which one that is, I’m not really sure. It depends what Goodell sees as more replaceable – his fans or his talent. But as I’m sure he knows, the league needs both to survive.

That’s the secret to sports revenue. Both sides. I’m quite certain Roger Goodell has a cautious eye, if not a preference, on both.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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