Tom Sorensen

On NFL protests, Richard Petty, President Trump’s diversions, and what happens next

I love Richard Petty. Every time we talk I feel as if I should open the conversation by saying thanks. But to say, as he did, that the athletes who don’t stand for the national anthem ought to leave the country is unfortunate. And wrong.

Many of you contend that athletes should not use the platform their jobs confer to express an opinion. But a lot of us offer opinions. The difference is that people notice what athletes say and do, and whether they say it while standing or kneeling. If I took a knee before writing this paragraph, who would know?

The movement, and that’s what it has become, is neither anti-military nor anti-government, and it’s not anti-flag. It began as an attempt to call attention to the violence from police that black men faced.

Last weekend it became a cause and a response to a speech by President Donald Trump and the subsequent Tweets he sent out. Players who don’t stand for the anthem, he said are sons of a bitches and should be fired.The president makes Petty sound moderate and nurturing.

Do you know what’s interesting about the protests and their aftermath? It’s this: In a country with major issues to decide, the issue we’re most talking about is the failure of athletes to stand for the anthem. We’re also talking about President Trump’s criticism of the athletes and the NFL.

You can see the appeal. In the president’s eyes, there apparently are good guys and bad guys and if you’re not one you’re the other.

Suddenly it’s not about North Korea, it’s not about a health bill that again looks destined to fail again, it’s not about hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

It’s about those who refused to stand for the anthem.

Three quick thoughts:

1. I was walking out of a bar and restaurant that I favor last week and a man I didn’t know said: “I like your column.” I immediately thought, I like this guy. “Please stay out of politics,” he added.

I get it. Sports are a great diversion. But that doesn’t mean they are free of politics. A football game might be a three-hour break from real life. But athletes aren’t immune to issues outside the stadium. So they silently protest, President responds with angry Tweets, and the line between life and sports blurs.

2. I was happy that Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson addressed the anthem issue. He talked about football bringing people together. When the Panthers are good, fans cheer together. And when they lose, fans commiserate together. The idea is that no matter how much money you have, or how little, you’re part of the same team.

The NFL is by far the most popular sport in the country. It also is by far the most popular sport in Charlotte. Richardson needed to address the issue. He needed to take a side. The absence of a statement created a void, and people filled it with conjecture.

The only conjecture now will be the response of his players. A protest divides fans. Richardson has made it clear he doesn’t want them protesting, but will support them if they do. How will those players react Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., where Carolina plays the New England Patriots?

3. The NFL’s ratings have dropped slightly. The pregame anthem’s ratings have not. A lot of fans, and non-fans, will watch the anthem Sunday to see what the Panthers will do.

If you check social media, you will hear from hundreds if not thousands of people who say they will boycott the NFL. If players aren’t compelled to stand for the anthem, fans say they no longer will feel compelled to go to the stadium or sit in front of their 55-inch flat screen TV.

But these aren’t the fans the NFL should worry about. If fans are announcing a boycott, putting it where all their friends can see, they care. If they care, they’ll be back. Same thing happened last time there was a work stoppage. I’m finished with this sport forever. Whoa, management and players settled? What time is kickoff?

It’s the fans who quietly walk away the league should worry about.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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