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NFL’s anthem decision shows the league’s obsession with visuals and optics

The NFL did not, in its new policy outlined on Wednesday, ban players from kneeling during the National Anthem.

Instead, the league banned players who are ON the field — emphasis added — from kneeling during the anthem. Players who do not want to participate can choose to remain in the locker room during the anthem.

The decision to have different rules for on- and off-field players drills home the NFL’s intense emphasis on the league’s images, visuals and optics — and how those impact the perceptions of their paying fans.

“Essentially, the league is trying to shove the protests out of sight by putting them in the locker room,” Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman wrote.

“It’s not really about us and the players coming together,” former NFL player Ephraim Salaam said, speaking from the NFL’s perspective. “It’s more so about us and protecting our brand.”

Perception v. reality

Sparked by protests from quarterback Colin Kaepernick over racial injustice, the NFL’s new National Anthem policy has led to praise from President Donald Trump and sharp criticism from players and the union, who say they were not consulted on the issue.

With this change, the NFL’s primary focus was to keep the protesting players out of sight and out of mind. In its statement announcing the new policy, the NFL said the players had “sparked awareness and action” on issues of social justice. Still, the NFL lamented that this had also created a “false perception” of the players.

“It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case,” the NFL said.

Several analysts said that perception, and its impact on the business of football, was the primary reason for the anthem changes.

“(The policy) doesn’t meaningfully address the issues that are at the root of the protests as much as it does the external backlash against them,” ESPN’s Dan Graziano wrote.

The league’s focus on images and visuals is nothing new, and was similarly evident in how the league dealt with domestic violence over the past few years.

Consider the case of Ray Rice. The former Baltimore Ravens running back was charged with aggravated assault after an early morning fight with his fiancee in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in February 2014. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decided to suspend him for just two games as punishment, and his team stuck by him.

But when TMZ published shocking video of that fight, and images of Rice punching and knocking out his fiancee were made public, the league’s reaction was much more severe. The Ravens released him, and Goodell announced that Rice would be indefinitely suspended. (Charges against Rice eventually were dropped after he completed a pretrial intervention program.)

Why the change of heart? The explicit video.

“It was something we saw for the first time today, all of us,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at the time. “It changed things, of course. It made things a little bit different.”

The Rice example is telling of the lengths the NFL will go to protect its brand and punish wrongdoers when it faces issues that alienates certain fans, like with the anthem issue.

Sports reporter Mike Wise told CNN that this anthem decision, though controversial, is likely to succeed in its primary point of keeping protesting players out of the national TV audience.

“I think unfortunately for the players, this … does in fact almost eliminate the optics — the bad optics — of half the teams standing and half the teams kneeling, unless those players are interested in possibly having their teams fined and losing their jobs,” Wise said.