• Tim Baird

It has been painful to watch the recent dispute between players and owners of the NFL over the players’ right to protest during the playing of the National Anthem.  Although this expression of free speech did not start out as a personal battle between these two groups, it has slowly devolved into one.  I’m afraid that as this issue takes on darker overtones of racial tension between the all white owners and the 70% black players, resolution of this conflict will slip further away.  That’s a shame because this unnecessary conflict is hampering both sides from achieving what they want.  What is needed now, is an experienced school administrator to step in and stop this dispute before we lose sight of the real issues on both sides of this debate.

I will admit that I am biased when I state that what is needed now to help resolve this divide is a school administrator.  I’m sure that there are other skilled mediators out there who could also help.  But as a long-time school administrator, I have seen many of these types of disputes and proposed solutions before.  If not managed carefully, this can lead to a situation where both sides lose.

The recent ruling by the NFL owners to fine teams every time players take a knee during the National Anthem is a great example of this.  I have made this same mistake when I served as a high school principal.  In our high school, we had two different “gangs” that rivaled each other.  Both groups came from different parts of our community. This was a rural / suburban area so these were not hardened criminal gangs but there was still much posturing on both sides that sometimes resulted in fighting.  As with any team, both groups had to have a uniform, so they began by wearing hats with letters identifying their specific neighborhood. I knew immediately what to do.  I banned those specific hats.  They switched to specific colors of shirts.  I banned those.  They moved to different belt buckles, then shoelaces, then different hats, and on and on.  I learned a tough lesson.  It is difficult to legislate the details because someone will just change the details. Although the NFL policy actually forbids anything that shows disrespect for the flag, they purposely called out kneeling.  Owners might argue that they have accounted for the details with this somewhat vague policy but the reality is that whether they are specific or vague about the details, they don’t want to get into a definition war with the players over what constitutes respect or disrespect.

We see this happen right now in a number of areas.  Almost every week, we read about new designer drugs being created that are legal because the specific laws haven’t caught up with that exact formula yet.  The same is true for gun restriction legislation.  Laws against specific guns and equipment are simply avoided through minor modifications of the equipment.

I expect that the NFL players will probably respond in kind.  They will respond in a dozen different ways forcing the owners to have to respond in equal measure to every specific action.  If I were the players, I would address this by standing up for the Anthem while holding up a card that reads, “I respect the National Anthem and my country.  However, my first amendment rights to free speech are being restricted.  Also, Black Lives Matter.”  Is this a violation of the new policy?  Not according to the policy.

Here is where I would apply my second school administrator lesson.  When addressing a potential dispute, a good school administrator will look for common ground or understanding.  This is frequently done when working with parents when their child has broken some rule or is not doing well in class.  This can be a point of contention or you can come together as adults who care about the child and try and find the right supports to address the issue.  Effective school administrators always try to build the connection to a common goal before these difficult conversations.  This is also true in difficult negotiations with teachers. Finding common ground and working together toward solutions that help everyone are always the goal here.

How does this apply to the NFL situation?  There are legitimate issues on both sides of this issue.  Owners are concerned that the players actions are being misinterpreted by the fan base as being unpatriotic.  This has the potential to lose fans and devalue their team. This ultimately could lead to teams having less income to spend on players’ salaries and benefits.  Thus, everyone could potentially lose in that situation.  The players have an equally compelling point.  They are using their star status to draw attention to a serious social issue impacting the black community.  Their message of, “Black Lives Matters,” is largely misunderstood by the white fan base of professional football.  The players are uniquely positioned to bring this message to a larger audience because of their national status.  The truth is that NFL team owners should realize that since their workforce primarily comes from the black community, they should also care about this issue and help the players to amplify the message, not work to attack the form that the message takes.

Here is what a school administrator would recommend to both sides. Stop making this about the National Anthem.  The players’ message is not against the Anthem or even the country itself.  It is about how African Americans are treated in this country at many levels, including how they are dealt with by some law enforcement agencies.  A school administrator would encourage owners to sit down with the players and talk about how they could help players amplify this message.  A school administrator would also sit down with the players and let them know that their current protest is being twisted to mean something that wasn’t intended and therefore the real message is being missed.  Try a different approach.

Here is the campaign that a school administrator might put forward for both sides.  Owners and players come out together in a united front.  Players come out in support of the National Anthem and our country. Owners tell the nation that players were never being unpatriotic.  Owners, with the players, make the statement that Black Lives Matter and that they are going to put resources toward resolving the issue.  Owners should advertise the issue in their stadiums and publications. Imagine if “Black Lives Matter,” came up on the scoreboard after the National Anthem.   In addition, owners should work with the players to fund a national information campaign on the issue.  They also could commit resources to the black community to address related issues of poverty, housing, education, job training, and health care. Owners could also contribute to police training around cultural sensitivity.  Owners could hire Colin Kaepernick to be their spokesperson for this campaign. They could also stop blacklisting him from getting picked up by a team since he should be judged on his skills and ability to be an NFL quarterback not his politics.  Together, owners and players could work together to address issues that are important to the players and our country.  At the same time, the players would support the owner’s request to not alienate some of their fan base over the misperceived issue of lack of patriotism.

This is how a school administrator would work to resolve this dispute.  Both sides would have to agree to help each other achieve their goals.  Otherwise, everyone gets detention.

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