The league tried to sidestep the issue through the 2016 season, hoping the news media would begin to ignore the handful of protesting players and the demonstrations would fade. By the start of the last season, the number of players taking part had shrunk to just a dozen or so. But when President Trump called out the owners for letting even those few players continue to protest and used an epithet to describe the players who continued to make a stand, everything changed.
For one Sunday last September, owners and executives stood arm-in-arm with the players. After that, protesting players began taking the blame for the decline in N.F.L. television ratings, the league’s most-valued barometer.
The league has only itself to blame. The N.F.L. has long used patriotism as a marketing tool. No big game would be complete without a military flyover or the unfurling of a flag as big as the field itself. Like many sports leagues, it wrapped itself even more tightly in the American flag after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
It has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Department of Defense to stage tributes to members of the military at games. The government also paid for on-field color guards and ceremonies where soldiers enlisted or re-enlisted in front of thousands of fans.
But it was not alone. Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and other sports leagues also took money to play host to patriotic displays (the N.F.L. paid back more than $700,000 to the Defense Department after an audit). The National Basketball Association has a longstanding policy that players must stand during the anthem. But the N.F.L. is by far the country’s most popular sport, and the one most closely associated with the military.
The anthem divide has caused a racial rift. About 70 percent of the league’s players are black, roughly the same percentage of its fans who are white. Many black fans have said they support the players who are protesting, while many white fans have said those players are unpatriotic.
These divisions are even more apparent in certain geographic areas. The owners of teams in states like Texas, which leans conservative and has a large military presence, have been among the most vocal in arguing that all players need to stand. Owners in states in the Northeast, or in Seattle and San Francisco, which are more progressive, have expressed more tolerance.