The NFL Policy on Protests Makes (Business) Sense

NFL player in protest

​May 29, 2018 — By Jerry Roberts

The National Football League recently announced a policy to govern the protests that dominated football conversation last season, pitting fans against players. The new ruling states that players will no longer be allowed to kneel during the national anthem. If they are on the field they will stand for the anthem. If they prefer not to do that they will remain in the locker room, out of public view, and then come on the field.

Critics of the new rule say the NFL is wrong to stifle the free speech of the players, who started this in protest of the numerous shootings of African-Americans, often unprovoked, at the hands of police. Make no mistake, social injustices need attention and none of us are free from the responsibility to see that everyone's rights are protected. That said, our methods must be carefully chosen so that we don't trample the rights of others in the process.

This column focuses on the business angle, not the two issues that fuel the anger – the shootings, and claims that the players were disrespecting the flag as well as military personnel and veterans. I understand there are many people who feel these points should not be separated​, that the ​racial and social implications are too important.

Fans: Focus on football

Here’s the business issue. Customers didn’t like the protests. FoxNews reported in January that NFL TV viewership declined by 10 percent last year, which angered its television partners and sponsors. Those sponsors don’t want their brand associated with a product that is said to disrespect the anthem, the American flag, and the military. They have a lot of options on how to spend their money and if TV ratings had continued to go down this season, there’s no telling what it might have cost the NFL to keep their rich TV deals in place.

Merchandise sales also took a hit and NFL stadiums had a lot of empty seats. None of this was likely to improve, especially with President Trump geared up to continue his assault on the league over the protests.

The owners are in a tough spot, wanting to serve their customers and also support their players. The league has carefully marketed its product to a specific clientele and its continued success depends on keeping them happy.

​Can I protest on "company time"?

Let's say I work for you and one day I take issue with something the governor does, then place a sign next to the cash register that says, "Governor unfair, recall him now!" You know the sign will make about half of the customers happy, and displease the other half. That makes no sense for business and you tell me to take it down.

I protest your action, stating you're stomping on my right to free speech. You advise me that I can protest the governor's action as I please, just not during working hours, not on company property and not wearing the company uniform (which is also company property).

"This isn't fair," I scream. "You're taking away my leverage. My protest will be most effective if I get it in front of all of our customers and media – and using the company name helps." You answer, "Jerry, you can't just hijack our customers or our name for your personal agenda. People come to our business to buy our product, not be ambushed by a protest. I support your right to protest and I know there are people who agree with your position, but I also know many of our customers and even fellow workers do not. It's my responsibility to protect their interests as well."

​The owners are in a tough spot, wanting to serve their customers and also support their players. The league has carefully marketed its product to a specific clientele and its continued success depends on keeping them happy.

​The players protested using the employer's assets

Players leveraged the NFL's resources last season for their protests and it resulted in fewer tickets sold along with reduced TV viewership. I know some say the players have the right to use that leverage to protest in front of the largest possible audience. However, a business legally owns the relationship with its customers, not the employees. The players didn't consult the owners or ask for permission. Had they done so they might have gained valuable moral and financial support for their protests, so long as they didn't take place during games.

The business perspective

From a purely business perspective, the NFL did the right thing. They've taken the protests out of the view of customers who oppose them. If players violate the rule they'll be fined. At least one owner as of now has said he will pay those fines for players cited. Others may follow suit. If that happens I expect the league to raise the stakes and add the threat of suspensions to the mix.

To learn ​how to ​hit the 'reset button' on how ​the people in your organization ​work together, click here.

​​If players want to continue to protest let them take to the streets and do that. There is no doubt the media will follow these well-known athletes to cover it. Players will have their voices heard, customers will not be offended, and the business that feeds owners and players alike won't be damaged in the process. I don’t see how the owners could have decided differently.​

​​Slightly edited from the version originally published in the Guam Daily Post, where J​erry Roberts' column, The Work Zone, appears each Tuesday.