Sunday morning, I appeared on Howard Kurtz's show "MediaBuzz," on Fox News Channel to discuss the sagging NFL ratings this year, a topic so picked over that Bloomberg Businessweek did a cover story about it almost a month ago. I tossed out a few theories about why the ratings might be down, batted down a few others and made sure to note that the ratings already seem to be bouncing back anyway, as evidenced by Thanksgiving, which turned out to feature the most-watched NFL game in FOX history. The show ended, and I left the studio, drove home and didn't think too much more about it.
The next time I looked at my phone, it was vibrating with rage. The issue was not with anything I said, or some unfortunate chyron, or even my hair. It was that I didn't understand the real reason the NFL was supposedly struggling this year. The real reason was Colin Kaepernick.
Sample comment from Facebook: "You are dense, NFL ratings are down because of Colin Kaepernick !!! If you are confused by that you need to find a new job... you are brainless as well as d--kless." (Isn't Mark Zuckerberg's invention delightful?) The overwhelming consensus was that I had missed the most obvious answer of all: NFL ratings are down because fans are mad over Kaepernick's protest.
Now, my first instinct was to read these responses, shake my head, turn off my devices and enjoy the rest of my Thanksgiving weekend. It'd be a funny story to tell my friends: I went on Fox News and got yelled at for not blaming poor NFL ratings on one person. What dopes!
But this is, as I am constantly being told, part of the problem. This is an Elite Media position, the dismissal of differing viewpoints because I can't escape my theoretical bubble. (This bubble being where I live in North Georgia, apparently.) This is why people distrust the media, I am told: Because we only talk to each other and lord some sort of superiority over those we deem less intelligent and informed than we are. We don't engage with criticism, so we end up only talking to those who already agree with us.
I do not want to be part of this problem. Post Election Day, media folk have been wrestling with their place in this new reality, where fake news stories are seen more than real ones, where the president-elect can just make up things on his Twitter feed and no one seems to mind. So the least I can do -- the least any of us can do -- is to meet these stories head on. If a hundred people are going to yell at me that the reason the NFL's ratings are down is because of Kaepernick's protest, I owe it to them to give their claims a thorough reckoning. It feels insufficient to just wave our hands at claims that strike us as demonstratively false. We need to prove it. The way back is always through facts.
To me, it seems there are two ways to dig through this. The first is to look at whether there is any evidence that people are not watching the NFL because of Kaepernick's protest. The second is to look at the logic of such a decision, if someone were to actually make it. This allows us to meet those who dispute what I believe to be obvious statements of fact on both fronts: We discuss the actual truth of the claim, and then the emotional truth. Because they both count. It's possible the second one counts more.
Is there any evidence that people really are watching less NFL because of Kaepernick? One must allot for the fact that there are a variety of reasons, from an oversaturation of the product, to the nation's attention being focused on the election for much of the season, to an inferior on-field product, to the off-field scandals involving concussions and domestic violence, to the lack of real star power or breakout teams. Kaepernick's protest might be a part of that; there certainly were many people yelling at me saying so yesterday.
There is some data supporting this, but it's awfully circumstantial. A Rasmussen poll said that 32 percent of fans say they were "less likely" to watch a game because of Kaepernick's protest. Upon the release of this survey, Forbes claimed it was "confirmed" that Kapernick's protest was pushing down the ratings.
But a survey is far from hard evidence and, one could well argue, has more to do with a pollster's question than actual viewing habits. If you are the type of person who was angered by Kaepernick's protest, you are also precisely the sort of person who will answer, when asked about NFL ratings, that you aren't watching the NFL this year specifically because of Kaepernick. This makes the poll accurate -- the pollsters wrote down the answers correctly -- but it doesn't make the ratings accurate, any more than an exit poll is an exact replica of voting results (as we all learned three weeks ago). TV ratings and public opinion surveys both have such wide error bars that assuming they're correct in and of themselves, let alone directly related to one another, is a logic leap made more out of narrative expedience than anything "confirmed." And local ratings for 49ers games are roughly the same as they were last season; 2015 was a rough year for the 49ers, albeit one that featured Kaepernick starting fewer games. And the NFL, in fact, says its internal numbers show that the reputation of its players in the public sphere is actually higher than it has been in recent years.
Now, it's probably not wise to start taking NFL internal numbers at face value. But still: There is zero hard evidence that Kaepernick's protest has had anything to do with the lower NFL ratings -- ratings which are creeping back up, post-election, by the way -- outside of the claims of people who already dislike Kaepernick's protest and are inclined to blame it for anything within arm's reach.
But what about the emotional truth? It feels right to many people to be upset with Kaepernick, and thus the NFL for allowing, or at least not discouraging, his protest. This was another common response to the Fox News show: The NFL should have done something.
Now, allotting for the fact that we are all different human beings having different experiences walking around our different little corners of this vast American universe, I think this is probably worth trying to find some reasonable, mostly agreed-upon points in response here.
Here are a few:
- The NFL is not going to ban someone from its league for private, personal political speech. Nor should it. Sure, Roger Goodell would prefer Kaepernick stand for the national anthem. But he (obviously) cannot force him to do so. If Goodell had suspended Kaepernick -- as many who are angry with Kaepernick and, subsequently, the NFL would have liked him to do -- the blowback for the league, even in Donald Trump's America, would have been far more widespread and explosive than what actually went down. Imagine if your company not only suspended you from your job for political speech on Facebook, but in fact banned you from your entire industry. You'd be furious, right? Why would one demand that the NFL react differently?
- Kaepernick's protest has nothing to do with the military. No reasonable person would argue that the national anthem is only about the military, right? The flag stands for all that this country (supposedly) represents, good and bad, and that includes the freedom of speech and assembly. This is in fact a good argument to make to Kaepernick if you disagree with his protest: When you stand for the national anthem, you are standing not for everything your country does, but everything your country purports to represent. I personally stand for the national anthem because I believe this country can be better, and believe that the flag represents that ideal. This is not Kaepernick's stance, and that's fine: This is America, after all. (This oft-quoted phrase, "this is America after all," feels both more powerful and more impotent in the past three weeks.) But the idea that Kaepernick's protest is focused specifically at the military is not only incorrect -- Kaepernick has in fact worked with veteran's groups during the protest -- but also betrays an oddly single-minded view about what America in fact is.
- Not watching NFL games because of a protest by a player who isn't even playing in the game makes no sense. If you dislike Kaepernick's protest, fine: Don't watch 49ers games. Boo Kaepernick if you feel so inclined. But the idea that one would refuse to watch another game because of a political stance by someone who is playing elsewhere, thousands of miles away, is nonsensical. Sports fans are always claiming that they'd like their sports separate from their politics, that they don't want politics shoved in their face when they're trying to relax and have fun at a game. But not watching a game because of the politics of someone who isn't even on the field is the actual definition of shoving politics into a game where it otherwise would not apply.
- Ratings are back up, anyway. Seriously, the highest-rated regular-season NFL game in the history of FOX was played four days ago. If fan anger toward Kaepernick can't be expected to last longer than eight weeks, it hardly seems fair to remain so angry toward him for keeping up his protest, in the face of unprecedented resistance, for just as long.
I will confess: The idea that someone would not watch the NFL because of Kaepernick's protest -- while their fandom has survived monstrous scandals, an overwhelming obsession with profit over fan service and the league's mounting indifference to the physical ramifications of playing its sport at every level from professional down to Pop Warner leagues -- is absolutely baffling to me. It is illogical, it is irrational and it has no basis in anything remotely factual in the physical world. But today: It is not enough to just say that. It must be refuted, meticulously and thoroughly.
To be honest: It seems a little obvious to me to have to say all this stuff. These are fundamental principles that I had always accepted as inherent to the American experience. But I was wrong to do so. Just because I think it's obvious, and other people who work in my field think it's obvious, doesn't mean it is obvious. We're all learning lessons in this new reality. We must tackle false premises head on. This is now part of the job description. It probably always should have been.