Recent social unrest has brought an old National Football League controversy to the forefront again. Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, was asked in an interview about his feelings on players kneeling during the national anthem. Brees responded that he found it disrespectful to the country and our flag. Brees said he is proud to stand during the Star-Spangled Banner because it brings to mind both of his grandfathers who fought during World War II for a better world. By Wednesday, Brees’ comments had been attacked on social media by LeBron James and several prominent athletes in other sports as well as his teammates. Protesters in New Orleans denounced Brees publicly during George Floyd demonstrations. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers called out his counterpart in New Orleans. Brees was forced to apologize not once, but twice on Thursday. By Friday, the President of the United States was weighing in on Twitter.
The last time anthem protests were in focus, television ratings stumbled badly, falling close to 20 percent over a multi-year stretch. The Super Bowl was not immune, with total viewership dropping from 115 million in 2015 to 98 million by 2019 before a small rebound this year. With the NHL and NBA having playoff games this fall, as well as the US Open and other golf majors, there will be a lot of options for sports viewers in September and October compared to normal. A polarizing subject such as the anthem protests risks driving away audiences during a time of unprecedented competition.