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[Megan McArdle] The NFL can’t afford to become a battleground

If you want a perfect metaphor for our national moment, it’s Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva coming out onto the field for the national anthem while the rest of his team stayed in the locker room.

Asked about it after the game, coach Mike Tomlin simply referred to an earlier statement on the reasoning for keeping the team in the locker room while the Star Spangled Banner played: he wanted the team to be unified in whatever it chose to do. “People shouldn’t have to choose,“ Tomlin said. ”If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn’t be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn’t be separated from his teammate who chooses not to.“ But as Villanueva seems to have recognized, staying in the locker room is not simply a neutral act; it is also a choice, of tribal loyalties over national ones.

Team unity is an admirable goal for a coach. But to secure that unity, he asked Villanueva, a West Pointer who served in Afghanistan, to refrain from publicly honoring a symbol of the larger team we’re all supposed to be a part of: the United States. The coach asked him to choose tribal unity over the national kind. It’s a false choice, but one that a lot of people are nonetheless being forced to make. And no matter what they choose, a lot of people end up angry.

Tomlin himself, of course, was clearly in a bad position. And I have sympathy for the players who put him there. I understand why people with a platform would want to use it to publicly express the feeling that a lot of black Americans have: that their country does not treat them as completely equal citizens, but as a caste apart.

Feeling like a citizen is more than being entitled to carry the passport abroad. If you are regularly stopped by police, demanding to know who you are and what you’re doing here, you are apt to feel like exiles in your own country. People who feel this way could view the country’s anthem as something less than a sacred expression of an inviolable national unity. Or perhaps they see it as embodying that ideal, of which our nation is falling short.

A lot of people don’t see it that way, however. Players refusing to offer a small symbolic honor to the country that has made them among the richest and most revered people in the history of humanity … well, to many ordinary fans who cannot dream of such status or wealth, it seems frankly ungrateful, and disrespectful to the legions of less exalted Americans who ultimately pay their salaries.

President Donald Trump was happy to capitalize on this also-understandable sentiment. In a series of tweets this weekend, he called for the players who won’t honor the anthem to be suspended or fired. Given what the players were protesting, such an attack inevitably has its own tribal overtones.

Trump was wrong to attack the NFL players; it is beneath the dignity of the US presidency to bully individuals or groups. (Exceptions made for political figures who have volunteered for the fray.) It’s understandable that NFL players wanted to make as strong a counterattack as possible. Unfortunately, huddling in a locker room is not a very effective method of striking back at the president. If it was supposed to defuse the tension, it didn’t. Trump’s base is fired up over this conflict, their sympathies entirely with the president. And the mushy middle that such protests need to persuade are unlikely to be swayed by a refusal to honor the anthem.

To get those people on your side, you first need a common connection, a claim on their sympathy and support. Where does that claim come from? Appeals to universal moral values like justice and equality may feel more important, more virtuous, than mere patriotic symbolism. But the historical record indicates that however much people honor those virtues in theory, in practice they are unwilling to actually do much to secure justice and equality for distant strangers. No, to really move people to action you need a more primal, less abstract connection, which is to say, precisely the sort of sentiments of loyalty and solidarity that the anthem evokes.

Without them, we find ourselves where we are now: tribe against tribe, lofty ideals against gut patriotism. It’s a battle that both sides are losing, at immense cost.

The NFL can ill afford to become our national metaphor for this psychological civil war. There has been a lot of talk in recent months about how the protests are killing the NFL, a claim that is wildly overblown. What is true, however, is that the NFL is vulnerable to a killing blow. The news about football-related brain injuries seems to get worse every day. That will raise ongoing liability concerns, for professional leagues as well as the youth sports that ultimately create NFL players. It also creates parental concerns that could prove an even bigger problem for recruitment a decade or two from now. And if it’s true that sports fandom is apt to start with playing that sport as a child, declining youth participation will ultimately cost the NFL viewers as well as great players.

Nor is that the only problem that the NFL faces. Cord-cutting and the proliferation of alternative entertainments is eroding viewership, which means they certainly can’t afford to lose any more fans. And team moves have left some teams with empty stadiums, which is dismal for the players and a very bad look if you’re trying to woo viewers back.

During the first few weeks of the season, viewership has been bad enough to get Wall Street worried about broadcasting stocks. But while the broadcasters will take the first hit, ultimately that money will come out of the pocket of the NFL, when contracts expire and the league can’t get so much money for those precious viewing rights. Players’ salaries -- and the visibility their protest relies on -- will fall.

This is the worst possible time to be facing boycotts from both supporters of protesters like Colin Kaepernick and their detractors. Fandom is ultimately driven by that same wordless gut loyalty that animates the furor over those protests. To endure, that loyalty has to feel reciprocal. If the players signal they don’t feel that loyalty, to one side or the other, they’re apt to lose those people as fans. And they will have a heck of a time wooing those folks back.

So while the protests are not, by themselves, going to kill football, they could be the catalyst that causes an underlying disease to flare into an acute crisis, much as Trump’s election caused a low-level national culture war to flare into an epic struggle of rage and will. Which is why this is such a perfect metaphor. All Americans are facing the same choices Villanueva made: whether to stand for country or tribe. We may also face the choice a lot of other players made: which tribe to choose when country fails us. And unless we choose wisely, we may find that we have destroyed or impoverished the very thing we were trying to stand for.

By Megan McArdle

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.