Joe Starkey: Roger Goodell is Donald Trump's puppetOctober 13, 2017 8:46am

Oct. 12-- They botched the play, for sure, but the Steelers had the right idea three weeks ago in Chicago. Stick to sports.

Isn't that what so many fans are preaching these days?

That's the sentiment I get when I share a thought on how, say, the crisis in Puerto Rico deserves far more attention from the president of the United States than an NFL player peacefully protesting for a minute or so before a football game.

So let's stick to sports.

Let's remove players from the political fray before games.

That was the Steelers' intent. They wanted to extract themselves from the crossfire and remain in the locker room during the national anthem. They did not want to be used as president Trump's political pawns. They did not want to be "goaded" into any kind of on-field demonstrations, to borrow coach Mike Tomlin's word.

Things went horribly awry when they opted to move out to the tunnel. We know that. But their original motive was sound-and the NFL should adopt it.

The league should make a rule requiring every team to remain in the locker room during the anthem, reasoning that the event has become too politically charged and that their players are being used for political means.

Instead, the NFL seems intent on doing the exact opposite: ordering players to conform to what is deemed a patriotic act-standing for the anthem-under the threat of punishment. And under pressure from the president.

I believe that is called forced patriotism. They did it in Germany a hundred years ago. They do it in North Korea now.

It has no place here.

Work places can make their own rules. That is true. But in the name of sticking to sports, how about this: Play the anthem for fans, then bring out the athletes to play football?

If you want to stand for the anthem, as I do, then stand. Sing. Place your hand on your heart. Tend to your side of the street and let others tend to theirs, so long as they act in peace.

But there will be no peace. Commissioner Roger Goodell has indicated in a letter to all 32 teams that he does indeed want to make every player stand. Goodell has capitulated to Trump. Or maybe to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who capitulated to Trump.

It's difficult sometimes to tell who is pulling the strings on the puppet that is Goodell.

"Like many of our fans," Goodell wrote to owners, "we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem. It is an important moment in our game."

Translation: We're losing money.

He continued: "We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us."

Really? I thought what fans expected-what they paid for-was a football game. Players owe them nothing more than to block, tackle, run, throw and catch.

More Goodell: "The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues."

You know, when I think of "honest conversations," the first guy I think of is Roger Goodell. The man who had the "Spygate" tapes destroyed. The man who told us the NFL just couldn't get a hold of that Ray Rice videotape. The man who misrepresented Tom Brady's testimony in "Deflategate" (such a drag when sealed documents are unsealed, isn't it?).

So let me ask you an honest question: Do you think an edict forcing players to stand, under threat of punishment, will diffuse the controversy or light a match to it?

I'm going with the latter. I'm thinking many players will enthusiastically take up the challenge, just as they did when Trump attacked black players at a nearly all-white rally three weeks ago in Alabama.

If you think the issue exploded then, just wait.

It was predominantly black players, by that point a small number, who were protesting racial injustice (and were then exposed to racial injustice via some of the slanderous, racist insults they received). The protests were barely noticed anymore until Trump unloaded.

"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, 'Get that son of a b---- off the field right now? Out! He's fired. He's fired!' " Trump said. "You know, some owner is going to do that. He's going to say, 'That guy that disrespects our flag, he's fired.' And that owner, they don't know it, (but) they'll be the most popular person in this country."

Nobody shouted back, "Stick to politics!"

Jones, meanwhile, tried to become that hero owner. He didn't threaten to fire his Dallas Cowboys players, but he did threaten to sit them if they protested during the anthem (wouldn't you love to see what ol' Jerry would do if Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant decided to take a knee?).

That prompted this tweet from former Cleveland Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins:

"Just so we're clear ... " Hawkins tweeted. "CAN play in NFL: Steroid users. Domestic Abusers. Rapists. Accused murderers. Racists. (Can't) play: Protesters."

Goodell, the owners and union reps are scheduled to meet next week and are faced with a bunch of bad choices. The NFL put patriotism on steroids a long time ago, even accepting the military's money to stage many of the pre-game displays you see (that is called "paid patriotism").

How do you scale back now?

Truth is, the league doesn't have to. It can simply choose to keep the players out of it, deal with whatever backlash comes its way-including the obligatory presidential tweet storms-and move on.

But Goodell won't argue for that. He'll fight for what his owners want, which is whatever's best for the bottom line. He has always been a spineless puppet for them.

Now he belongs to Donald Trump, too.

___

(c)2017 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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