It’s not mixing football and politics the NFL finds so distasteful. It’s mixing football with politics the league and its owners find distasteful.
That was made abundantly clear Monday night, when the Arizona Cardinals posted a story on their website lavishing praise on new Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh from team president Michael Bidwill. Shortly after, it retweeted a post by Adam Schefter with the letter Bidwill and fellow high school classmates are sending to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Kavanaugh.
So much for sticking to sports.
Bidwill has every right to be enthusiastic about a longtime friend’s new career opportunity, and even to stump for him. They go back almost 40 years, to their days at Georgetown Prep, and have remained good enough friends that Bidwill was a guest at Kavanaugh’s 2004 wedding.
But Bidwill was not promoting Kavanaugh’s nomination as Mike Bidwill, anonymous rich white guy from Phoenix. He was doing it as the owner of the Arizona Cardinals, giving the team’s endorsement to a Supreme Court candidate who, given the gaping divide in this country, is being viewed by many with suspicion and fear.
That surely includes some Cardinals fans.
Did Bidwill survey his season-ticket holders to see how they’d feel about their team throwing in with Kavanaugh? Did he consider that the team’s promotion of Bidwill’s support might alienate and even anger some of the people who pay the Cardinals’ bills?
Did he not stop to recognize the bald hypocrisy of an NFL owner dragging his team into a charged political debate less than two months after the league muzzled player protests during the national anthem because, as Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said, "Our playing fields — that’s not the place for political statements."
Now, some will say that the Cardinals’ promotion of Bidwill’s support for Kavanaugh is different than the player protests because it didn’t occur on a game day. But that’s splitting hairs — and badly, I might add. If the league wants to declare the game a politics-free zone, it has to apply to everything and everyone associated with it, and that line of separation has to be blindingly bright.
That means no campaign advertising — that’s really what the Cardinals "story" was — on team websites or endorsement letters on team letterhead. Or letterhead that looks like it. No candidate rallies at NFL stadiums for that matter, either. If you want to get political, you’re going to have to do it on your own time and away from league space.
But we all know that’s not really what the NFL wants.
The NFL, its owners and, yes, some fans have absolutely no problem with politics or polarizing displays so long as they align with their way of thinking. Tim Tebow taking a knee after a touchdown to honor God? He’s a good Christian and we need more of that! Players protesting in an effort to draw attention to criminal and economic systems that are biased against people of color? They’re ungrateful SOBs who are disrespecting the flag, the anthem and the military!
After NFL owners approved a new policy that allows players to stay in the locker room for the national anthem but requires them to stand if they're on the field, Bidwill praised it.
"We wanted to respect all the parties around the issue," he said in May.
Except there was one, very important party left out of the conversation: the players.
You cannot have dialogue when one side does all the talking. And you cannot expect players to "stick to sports" when the same rules don't apply to the owners and their teams.