Game attendance for the National Football League (NFL) is down 5 percent from last year, and TV ratings are down almost 10 percent -- and that was before protests of the National Anthem from a small handful of players erupted into a national spectacle.
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Now the league appears to want help projecting a coherent message as it grapples with how to handle national controversy swirling around the #TakeaKnee player protests.
On Tuesday, the NFL put out advertisements for a "senior communications strategist [who] will be responsible for proactively developing plans and strategies aimed at publicly positioning the NFL to key audiences through all communication channels, both traditional and emerging media."
The strategist "will work closely with communications department leadership to create messaging to reflect the league's wide variety of priorities and expedite organizational decision-making," according to ads placed on multiple jobs boards.
The new PR person at the NFL will have his or her work cut out, according to a crisis PR expert in Washington.
"The National Football League must take care to avoid appearing unpatriotic by arguing against President Trump's defense of the U.S. flag," said Gene Grabowski, a partner at kglobal, a PR and communications firm. "Each team will decide how to behave during the national anthem before games, but they would be well advised to discontinue their sideline protests because more and more fans will undoubtedly grow tired of them."
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Grabowski said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should end the controversy ASAP, Grabowski says.
"Roger Goodell would be well advised to publish a statement announcing that the issue with the president is over and that the NFL fully supports American ideals the symbols of our nation, including the flag and the elected officials who are sworn to protect and defend it," Grabowski said in an email to LifeZette. "He should conclude by saying that the league will be concentrating its attention this season on overseeing America's most popular sport and making sure it delivers the highest-quality play on the field."
What the NFL's exact position is regarding the protests and the politicization of games remains unclear.
The kneeling protests began last year, when fading quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the National Anthem. Kaepernick said he was protesting police brutality against black Americans.
Few players league-wide joined him. But on Friday, after President Donald Trump tore into owners for not firing players who do not stand during the anthem, NFL players and coaches decided to retaliate. Some locked arms. Many kneeled.
The kneeling backfired. Even in liberal-leaning metropolitan areas such as Boston and Washington, D.C., fans booed the kneeling players on Sunday, according to multiple reports.
It wasn't just Trump complaining from a political perch. On Monday, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast (R-Florida), who lost both his legs in Afghanistan while serving in the Army, said the protesting players should "already be gone." Mast wrote that the protests were an insult to veterans and soldiers deployed overseas.
"Trump's supporters, and many other Americans who aren't necessarily fond of Trump, believe athletes lead a rich, pampered life, and that they should play football and avoid making political statements."
"To all my brothers and sisters still serving overseas: we stand with you!" Mast wrote on Facebook.
And Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois, a moderate Republican and part owner of the Steelers, said Trump was right.
Perhaps worst of all, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin tore into one of his players, Alejandro Villanueva, for standing during the National Anthem at the Chicago game. Villanueva is a former Army captain in the Rangers, and did not want to offend veterans who contacted him and urged him to stand.
The response to the Steelers and Tomlin's remarks has been especially fierce, with loyal Steelers fans burning their jerseys and tickets, and sharing their protests online.
It's clear why the NFL needs communications help, especially as they go up against the president.
"For Trump, attacking the NFL -- and the reaction from the players, the media and even the team owners -- is a natural tactic," said Grabowski. "He does always does better when he has an active opponent on which to focus his energy. In addition, he has positioned himself against an opponent that embodies many of the resentments and anger of the people who support him. His supporters, and many other Americans who aren't necessarily fond of Trump, believe athletes lead a rich, pampered life, and that they should play football and avoid making political statements."
(photo credit, article image: WEBN-TV, Flickr / YouTube)