MA in Sports Journalism at St Mary's University

Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“Channels like Fox News continually obscure the message in order to enrage the President’s followers”: Conor Orr on diversity in the NFL, the ‘anthem issue’ and its political effects

I’m sure that there was a time when covering the NFL was a much more straightforward job than it is now. But with the recent subtle social, and political changes in the USA, the NFL has had to evolve.

In the last few years, the NFL has seen an openly gay player enter the draft, be drafted by a team and then bomb out of the league after only a year.  

Added to this, the NFL is also dealing with one of it’s biggest social and political issues of recent times, centring around Colin Kaepernick and his protests during the national anthems played before matches.

To understand more about prejudices in the NFL, I sought the opinions of Conor Orr, formally of and now a writer for ‘Sports Illustrated’ and ‘The Monday Morning Quarterback’.

Based on the East coast, Orr’s experience as an American football writer has largely been in the the cut-throat sports media environment of New York.

And the ruthlessness of the media was highlighted during Michael Sam’s journey.

Sam’s rapid rise to fame and then short career in the NFL was subject to huge media coverage at the time, something which Orr believes may have actually had a negative effect on the NFL’s relationship with the LGBT community.

He said: “Michael Sam getting drafted happened fairly early in my career (as a journalist), and whilst I think his sexuality certainly affected his draft status to some degree (maybe a round or two), he did get drafted.

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“I think from a media perspective, the initial uncertainty and subsequent rush to blanket-interview players and coaches about whether they’d accept a gay teammate could have been handled better.

“Some players also used religion as a shield to say they would not, which was disappointing since it was treated like another breakout headline from someone reporting the news.”

The current political and social issues surrounding the protests occurring throughout the NFL are complicated, but recent developments have been both eye-opening and worrying.

In order to address the supposed ‘lack of respect’ shown towards the American national flag by the protestors kneeling during the national anthem, the NFL ruled that players should remain in the locker-room or face a penalty fine, if they intended to protest.

This decision was voted on by the majority of NFL team owners and implemented by the NFL itself, under pressure from President Trump but without the consultation of the NFL Players Association.

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However, the subsequent involvement of the NFLPA resulted in the NFL rescinded the ruling, allowing the season to progress as normal.

From afar, the media reporting of Kaepernick’s protests has appeared extreme at times, so I asked Orr for his thoughts about the coverage in the USA.

He said: “I think there’s been some great reporting on the anthem issue, which is not really an anthem-related issue.

“The problem here in America is that channels like Fox News continually obscure the message in order to enrage the President’s followers.

“When I talk to fans I constantly hear: ‘What are they kneeling for?’ But here at Sports Illustrated, we’ve explained that.

“We’ve explained thoroughly why they are doing what they’re doing. We’ve explained how they’re helping communities at home. How they’re trying to combat systemic racism and social injustice.

“Unfortunately, there is more money and clout in cable news distorting the message for the benefit of one particular political party.”

The stark contrast between the NFL and the other three major sports leagues in the USA (MLB, NBA and NHL) has been highlighted by the ‘take a knee’ protests.

Whereas players in the other three leagues are to be commended for expressing opinions on social and political issues, in contrast, NFL players are criticised for doing the same.

Kaepernick and Eric Reid – the first player to kneel along with Kaepernick and a strong supporter of Kaepernick’s cause – have been unable to find work since they started protesting, with Kaepernick in the midst of a collusion case against the NFL.

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With so many vehicles available through which people are freely able to voice an opinion, it seems odd that NFL players weren’t permitted to protest, so I asked Orr about his experience of it.

He said: “Football was born out of the military industrial complex. As were the coaches and general managers.

“Everyone is supposed to remain steadfast and anonymous, nothing above the team.

“Clearly, the game is headed away from that direction, but there are many coaches who, while seeking stardom themselves, have a hard time with their players emerging from the masses.

“Football has also taken baseball’s place as America’s game, which is why the President currently uses the anthem issue to rile up his supporters.”

As mentioned previously, it was the owners of the NFL member organisations who took the decision to ban protests in the NFL.

The majority of the 32 team owners are white, with Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kim Pegula of the Buffalo Bills being the only exceptions.

And despite the league playing roster being made up of 70% African-Americans, the lack of diversity in the upper reaches of the NFL seems to reflects the decisions being made by the league.

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The owners seem to have become increasingly affected by the evolving conservative political climate of the country, with the President’s comments on the player protests surely influencing their decision making.

Orr said on the NFL owners: “I think a lack of diversity among owners is a huge issue, and speaks to American society as a whole. While this was not a unanimous decision among owners, it was a decision born out of fear, plain and simple.

“They were afraid the President was going to keep railing against the NFL to gain political points and so they stopped. Funny how they did not expect another obvious development, which was for the President to take a victory lap at the NFL’s expense and paint it’s leadership as weak.

“This is a mess entirely of their own doing. The NBA had an anthem policy on the books for years, while the NFL continuously painted itself as the true ‘Patriot League’, never realising that many of their own employees feel unwelcome in their own country.”

The most recent meeting between the NFL and the PA was on 27th August, with the future being uncertain.

But Orr believes that the NFL and the owners need to pull their fingers out.

He said: “I think it’s unbelievable that they don’t realise that everyone who has supposedly ‘stopped’ watching the NFL because of the anthem issue has already stopped.

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“The President will move on to something else because he needs new sources of fear to stoke his base. By engaging in this bumbling attempt to fix it, the NFL is keeping themselves needlessly in the news cycle.

“The only satisfactory answer in the long term, for me, is for them to pledge their support both publicly and financially for players who want to speak out and get involved in their communities. Will that happen? I doubt it.

“Like you said, NFL ownership is largely homogeneous, with powerful people like Jerry Jones carrying the loudest voices in the room.”

It will be interesting to see how the 2018 season unfolds, with so many question marks surrounding the national anthem.

Needless to say, when this first few notes of the Star Spangled Banner are played around the league, all eyes will be on the sidelines.

Featured photograph/Wikimedia Commons