Backgrounder: Football, the Flag the Anthem and Race

December 19, 2017

 by John Gaski, Ph.D.

Someone else should have been the one to transmit this message. It should have been done by Roger Goodell, the National Football League commissioner, or perhaps even more appropriately ― for reasons to be disclosed presently ― by former NFL boss Paul Tagliabue.

The precipitating issue and provocation is the current protest fetish among NFL players and their chosen vehicle of insulting both the American flag and the national anthem. Regardless of what they now say and irrespective of what they claim to be protesting, the players express their disdain for the nation and its culture, evidently including the law-enforcement culture, by disrespecting two leading national symbols. If they did not mean such civic desecration, they would have chosen a different setting, a different mode, a different time and place.

Yet, these details are beside the immediate point. In view of this recent history, it is timely, even overdue, to raise some questions about the NFL protest participants, informed by this little-known background:

Several years ago when he was NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue made a national tour of major university athletic departments for the purpose of educating college football players, coaches and administrators about some aspects of the true nature of the professional league. One of Tagliabue’s primary revelations, as he put it then, was that the two biggest problems in the NFL are guns and gangs. Specifically, a severe personnel management and legal issue is the too-common circumstance of players with different street gang affiliations facing each other across the line of scrimmage, in games or in practice. A corollary problem is the large number of these employees of questionable background who tote guns at team facilities — again, per Mr. Tagliabue’s report.

The relevance to today’s controversy is that a large fraction of the NFL player population has gangster background. Another large fraction, based on available demographics, failed to graduate from college despite the advantages of full grant-in-aid financial support and notoriously low academic standards at many schools. The derivative implication is the question of what proportion of the flag/anthem protesters is composed of poorly-educated, cognitively-challenged, street gang affiliates. Are the less savory types over-represented or under-represented among the protesters? If the former, no wonder the protests exhibit hostility toward the police and other American institutions. Is it not time to ask if the protesters represent the dregs of the NFL, or do they just appear to?

If the protesting players were not so cognitively deficient, the irony would occur to them that their country actually bestows them so much freedom and privilege that they can desecrate cherished national symbols, offend a majority of citizens, and antagonize the nation’s powerful chief executive, all without suffering any legal consequences. (Is this a great country or what?) But they are, apparently, so it doesn’t. And freedom of expression is not even the main issue. The crux is whether it is proper or sensible for the players to exploit their extreme First Amendment license in this particular way.

So, for the enlightenment of the NFL protesters, some underlying substance should be reviewed. A concern about police brutality prevails? From a report by Barack Obama’s own Justice Department (“Contact Between Police and Public”), about one percent of the U.S. population reports police contact in a given year that results in force or threat of force, half of which involves no more than being “grabbed or pushed” by police. The proportion of cases in which U.S. residents report being injured from police contact is one-fourth of one percent. Fatalities, of course, are far less, numbering in the hundreds annually, nearly all found to be justified.

Are blacks disproportionately victimized by force or threat of force by police? Relative to their share of the general U.S. population they are, but relative to their share of the U.S. criminal or violent criminal population their victim totals are disproportionately low in terms of police interaction. Another revelatory datum from the Department of Justice:  Of all public complaints of police “brutality,” only about 8 percent necessitate any disciplinary action. Fully 25-30 percent are literal fabrications. Remember “hands up, don’t shoot”?

Now, what was it the NFL guys have been protesting?

The unvarnished metrics suggest a conclusion: The amount of police brutality in the United States is at or near the minimal residual level a society can hope to achieve, considering especially: 1) the nature of police work; 2) the type of criminals police deal with;  and 3) that police are human. The findings that give rise to this observation are to be celebrated, and we can hope but not expect the NFL protesters will come to realize that.

Whatever, America has countless problems more severe than police brutality.

John F. Gaski, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is an associate professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. A long-time member of Notre Dame’s Faculty Board on Athletics, his primary research field is the study of social power and conflict.



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