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An Open Letter To The NFL Anthem Protestors

2018 June 10
by Greg Satell

In 2004, I found myself in the unusual position of leading a major news organization during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. During those heady, but confusing days, I struggled to understand the events around me, without much success. It seemed like a strange and mysterious force was propelling events forward.

In the decade and a half since then, I have studied many social movements, both historical and more recent, in an effort to better grasp those events, speaking to revolutionaries of all stripes. One thing I have found is that while all social movements are very different, those that actually succeed are remarkably similar in their principles.

As a diehard football (and Eagles!) fan, I have watched the anthem protests unfold with interest. It is admirable that world class athletes are willing to risk their livelihoods and reputations for a higher cause, but disappointing how little real progress has been made in terms of concrete results. Here’s how you can make your efforts more effective.

First, you need to define a clear vision for the change you want to see. It is not enough to merely state a list of grievances, you need to make an affirmative case for change. What do you actually want to see happen? Legislation? Prosecutions? Investigations? What? We don’t know because you haven’t made it explicit and clear. A poorly defined cause is hard to support in any significant way.

To be sure, our broken criminal justice system is far more than just a problem for minority communities, it is nothing less than a national crisis. A 2016 White House report found that 6%-7% of prime working age American males have a history of incarceration costing us billions of dollars every year. Even after their release, these American citizens cannot vote and face meager prospects for employment, putting even greater strains on our society.

Today, our country faces mounting deficits and an acute labor shortage. Our uniquely high incarceration rates destroy the potential of millions of young Americans and consume resources that can be more productively deployed elsewhere, such as more cops on the beat and more teachers in schools. What are you proposing we do about it?

Make no mistake, “raising awareness” and “creating conversations” are not real results. The agreement reached with the NFL, while laudable and significant, pales in comparison with your multi-billion dollar platform. Just think about what it would cost to buy the media time you have at your disposal and it is clear that you can and should do better.

Second, you have to make your values explicit and clear. During the struggle against apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s intentions were continually questioned. He was called a communist, an anarchist, a violent subversive and many other things. When asked about his intentions, he pointed out that no one needed to speculate about the values of his movement because they were clearly spelled out in the Freedom Charter way back in 1955.

This is not the exception, but a rule for successful movements. Mahatma Gandhi developed a clear doctrine of satyagraha. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed to the founding documents of our republic, the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as the basis for the civil rights movement.

Over the past two years, your values and motives have frequently been called into question and you can expect this to continue. However, you can greatly mitigate these attacks by clearly documenting what you believe and why.

Third, you need to confront those that attack you and make their efforts backfire. In the aftermath of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, the students launched the March for our Lives protests and were often subjected to harsh treatment in the media. Yet those who attacked them soon faced devastating advertiser boycotts.

The American flag represents far more than the blood that has been shed to defend our country. It represents the values that so many of our fellow citizens have fought for, among these are equal rights and equal protection under the law. Protests in defense of these values are not only patriotic, but define the very essence of what it means to be an American.

Yet people such as Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and Donald Trump are able to viciously attack your efforts with little fear of rebuke. These are people who have benefited enormously from the freedoms our country offers, but carelessly dismiss your efforts to extend those same freedoms to our fellow citizens. That simply cannot stand.

Fourth, you need to network your movement and invite participation. As I explained in my TED Talk about why some movements succeed and others fail, successful movements win by attraction, not defiance. Power will not fall just because you oppose it, but it wll crumble if you bring those that support it over to your side.

The Otpor! movement, which led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia, built their organization based on three tactical principles: Recruit – Train – Act. First they would recruit activists, then they would train them in the principles of nonviolent struggle and then they were expected to act.

It is action that allows people to take ownership of a movement and encourage others to do the same. Yet although you have risked much through your anthem protests, you have asked nothing of the rest of us. So what do you want us to do on your behalf? Sign a petition? Donate to a cause? Wear something to the stadium? March? What? Again, we don’t know because you haven’t said.

Another thing you can do is to align yourselves with those that share your values and goals. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner for example, has championed significant reforms. There are also millions of minority law enforcement officers in the United States and several national organizations that represent their interests.

Have you reached out to them to discuss how you could combine your efforts publicly to create a more equitable and effective criminal justice system? If not, why?

Finally, you need to plan for surviving victory. Many social movements that initially seemed triumphant soon found that their successes were reversed because they failed to plan for the day after.

For example, after the Orange Revolution overturned a falsified election in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych rose to power and the country descended into the worst corruption it had ever seen. The Arab Spring brought down Mubarak’s regime, but then swept the Muslim Brotherhood into power and Egypt reverted to a military dictatorship soon after.

What is your plan for lasting change? After the settlement with the NFL last November, there was immediately dissension among The Players Coalition. What do you intend to do differently in the future? How do you expect your values to live on? You need to think seriously about where you want things to go.

Most of all, you need to learn from the movements that came before you. One excellent resource is the website of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which offers various training materials, including guide books and instructional videos as well as a list of organizations it works with.

I wish you the best of luck in the coming year. I will be cheering you on and off the field.

– Greg


Image: Wikimedia Commons

12 Responses leave one →
  1. June 10, 2018

    One of your better discussions

  2. June 10, 2018

    Thanks Michael!

  3. Alejandro Segura permalink
    June 10, 2018

    Totally agree. Excellent argumentation and proposal Greg. I would just add that they are missing a leader a visionary like King or Mandela.A movement in search for a leader.Thanks for your articles. Saludos.Alejandro Segura

  4. June 10, 2018

    I see what you’re saying and it’s true that a truly transformational leader, such as Gandhi, Mandela or King, can focus efforts and provide direction. However, in my research I’ve found that some of the most effective movements don’t have a clear leader. That was certainly true of Otpor in Serbia and Orange Revolution/Euromaidan in Ukraine and the LGBT movement. It was also somewhat true of the struggle for women’s suffrage.


  5. Alejandro Segura permalink
    June 10, 2018

    You are right in stating that many movements do not have a clear leader. However, it is my feeling and perception that in the case in question they are lacking focus and direction . This is the reason why I think they need some kind of leadership, and yes…a Mandela or King type of leadership is not seen very often. Thanks for your response and for keeping us thinking and learning with your articles.

  6. Jim Grant permalink
    June 10, 2018


    As a 29 year military veteran, and also a man who believes strongly in the goals of equality, justice, fairness and unity, I am deeply conflicted by the Anthem protests.

    I recognize the Constitutional right and the positive intentions of those who kneel during the anthem. I help support many organizations who champion and foster these causes. However, I cannot emotionally or in principle connect with those who do not stand for our Anthem. Also, on a tactical level, it is not a positive or winning image – especially when it becomes a matter of routine. As you have well-stated, a lot more is needed to generate the results we need. The Anthem protest has made its point and becomes increasingly counter-productive.

    I think a better path is for individual teams or each professional sports league to create and publish a statement of principles and objectives that clearly outlines the thoughts, concerns, hopes and plans that collectively go through their minds as they stand for our Anthem. Each statement should focus on both the positive and troubling aspects of life in our nation today, and each organization can enlist the energy and resources of their fan base toward specific worthy, and reachable goals.

    The Anthem will always be a focal point. We need to turn it into a positive rallying point and unifying opportunity for dialog rather than have the worthy protests made by those who have knelt continue to be distorted by those who oppose the very values that reflect the better angels of our nature.


  7. June 10, 2018

    Hi Greg, This article really has power on many dimensions. Thank you so much. I agree with the others that it is one of your best, but I am not surprised as you continue to evolve as a force for positive consciousness. I hope more apply the lessons within. Allow me to share a few to illustrate your points further:

    I grew up in Brooklyn NYC and was very closely attached to the plights and potential many minorities and women faced. I lament at how long it is taking our “great nation” to do the same. We as a nation can’t simply say we stand for a flag when our founding principles are being attacked and demand more conscious actions and character. When we claim we will “make America great” – with any real conviction – we have to listen to our brothers and sisters, objectivity wherever offered, and expert scientists as they try to represent where we need to question our human rights, discrimination, incarceration, education and environmental imbalances, even when a reasonable suspicion of need is offered. I think being fed fake priorities versus requiring accountability to shared priorities is one of the challenges our government needs to respond to now.

    It’s sad if our nation has reached a point where everything has to be spelled out to them as our ability to reason through things and discuss issues openly used to and still needs to define us, more so than politics that intentionally divide us.
    I highly value your position as a man of the world as just like companies suffer when they inadvertently become closed, internal thinking organizations; so do entire countries. Especially when the man on top is such a lying narcissist with no conscious accountability to earned regard versus self celebratory fanfare.

    Your voice adds objectivity and clarity to matters that demand that. I have made the following observations:

    1. We, as a nation, are only as good as “we the people” find avenues to step up and engage in open dialog. Protests, including kneeling during anthems are less effective than giving form and accountability to issues, what true resolution entails and all that you pointed out so well.

    2. The backlash of taking too much for granted, the erosion of our rights, lies on a daily basis, and zero accountability, as we watch our very constitution and being a nation of laws violated by interpretation, manipulation and greed, may create momentum for positive change. But I fear too late as the WH creates a barrage of distraction to the real issues a more conscious society would prioritize and address. I was pleased to see a judge require Scott Pruitt to prove there are no climate issues, versus the tendency to rebuke all climate issues with zero accountability, as one example. But that action took too long, so we need to adjust our legal system to respond to the legitimate threats to our nation. Especially, Russia and this presidents claims of transparency should require proof that actions by the WH were above board versus the clown circus we see stressing our nation.

    3. There are too many efforts competing for attention to “unity” and they need to integrate into one open innovation cause and effect. I hope what some call the WEconomy and a few of us define as an age of interdependency gives shape to more inclusive, value-driven organizations, including government. I see its power as I applied it decades ago and have put off retirement for whatever effect I can have with others adopting what I call a Regenerative Success System as open, inclusive, objective, integrated and shared across the business and external ecosystem. Likewise, I root for others who are open to a value that benefits all of us, versus just a few.

    Greg, I never considered myself the brightest light in the room so I always wondered why I saw and synthesized stuff that brighter people missed. I always saw and encouraged the potential in others. Even in HP when I was the catalyst to connect customer needs with enabling impassioned global teams, I saw that as the best ROI versus all the attention management gave to the hundreds of millions and billions every effort brought in. But then I started realizing the gifts I gained in embracing diversity as a conscious designer who invested in Systems Thinking (since 1990) were key skills and mindsets to apply today. Recently Fast Company ran an article where they interviewed today’s “award winning designers” to ask what is the future of design. Most stated what I realized as a designer thrust beyond my design comfort zones long ago, that design think aided by conscious systems thinking are now vital skills for the C-Suite. Interestingly, they suggested that redesigning government as a healthier ecosystem was the ultimate use of designers mindsets.

  8. June 10, 2018

    We could all use a Mandela or a King. The problem is finding them:-)

  9. June 10, 2018

    Good points Jim. I see the anthem protests a bit differently. My feeling is that we are a country of ideals and, if we are unable to live up to those ideals, then maybe we don’t have the right to stand before the flag. Maybe we should all be kneeling.

    However, I do see your point. Your reaction is more than understandable, it was foreseeable. If the players didn’t have a plan for addressing concerns like yours beforehand, they shouldn’t have kneeled.

    – Greg

  10. June 10, 2018

    Great points Bill! Thanks for sharing them.

    – Greg

  11. Cheryl Howard permalink
    June 11, 2018

    Greg, I appreciate how you integrated insight with personal experience. Your points are right on target. Unfortunately, what started as a very public airing of a legitimate grievance has turned into a distraction and an obstacle to achieving any real progress. The media has spent months arguing whether kneeling is permitted or not. I have heard nothing about addressing the issues themselves–for the very reasons you outlined. Months later, the players who kneel and do nothing more are not “brave” or leaders or inspirations. The students have followed up their march with other activities. I see the impact in my own neighborhood schools. They are the inspirational leaders. I suspect collaboration is a key to their success.

  12. June 11, 2018

    I see what you are saying and I agree that the anthem protests have not been effective. In fact, I think it’s pretty clear that they would have died altogether if it wasn’t for Donald Trump and his friends. Every time the protests seem to have died away, they seem to want to revive them.

    However, I think it’s important to remember that the players are professional athletes, not professional activists. My guess is that they view these protests as they would any community engagement (and, it should be noted, the players who protest are also very involved in a number of very positive community actions). So they basically show up, put in an effort and leave it at that.


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