- - Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Professional football has opened its pandemic-era season over the past few days and by the looks of it, America’s favorite sport has flubbed the kickoff. If games played in nearly empty stadiums to minimize coronavirus exposure weren’t dismal enough, the league has apparently decided to sponsor “wokeball.” Attempting to mix pigskin and politics is a mistake, though, and Americans are choosing to punt.

The Super Bowl LIV champion Kansas City Chiefs hosted the AFC division rival Houston Texans in the Thursday night season opener that was supposed to feature a clash of powerhouses. The scaled-back crowd met both teams with a solid wall of boos, though, when the players locked arms on the field before the starting whistle while “We believe Black lives matter” and “It takes all of us” flashed on the stadium Jumbotron.

Ticket holders also “believe Black lives matter,” and displays of brotherhood are to be cheered. It’s the racial violence in U.S. cities the NFL is implicitly blocking for that is raising the public’s ire. Fans have a problem with paying good money to watch their thoroughly American sport devolve into an anti-American fandango. On Sunday, similar pre-game protests were staged at stadiums across the league.

Game days have never been the same since disgruntled San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick pulled on socks depicting cops as pigs in 2016. With concussion a very real issue for pro players, Americans may respectfully wonder if the signal-caller should have had his head examined.

The TV audience, the market providing the bulk of the NFL’s revenue, declined sharply when other players took up the anti-cop cause and took a knee during the national anthem. Ratings yet to fully recover. Thursday’s prime-time game suffered a precipitous 16% audience decline compared to a year ago.

Athletes are a breed apart, trained to marshal mental focus and innate physical ability to accomplish athletic feats that make them the envy of regular folks. And with an average annual salary of more than $3 million — seven times the U.S. president’s — it’s not hard for pro football players to acquire an inflated sense of self-importance and forget that their field of expertise ends at the end zone. They are, after all, overgrown entertainers.

Of course, the pigskin professionals are at liberty to exercise their right to free speech on the state of race relations or any other matter that tweaks their attention. If the NFL devolves into just another venue for hectoring citizens with trendy polemics, though, smart fans will look elsewhere for their kicks. It may be hard to believe, but once upon a time, fans flocked to the Olympics to watch crocquet. Sports that bore are no more.

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