Colin Kaepernick's re-emergence as the face of a new Nike advertising campaign has underscored an uncomfortable truth for the NFL as the 2018 season prepares to kick off on Thursday.
Two years after the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback launched his campaign to raise awareness about racial injustice by refusing to stand for the national anthem, the NFL remains none the wiser about how to defuse the issue.
A year ago, President Donald Trump triggered uproar across America's most popular sport by describing protesting players like Kaepernick as "sons of bitches" who should be kicked out of the sport.
Trump's intervention gave fresh momentum to a movement which had largely fizzled out, prompting dozens of mostly African-American players to join protests in solidarity with Kaepernick, who by then was unemployed.
Although the protests gradually subsided, the NFL's club of billionaire team owners were determined to hammer out a clear policy designed to avert further criticism from Trump while simultaneously respecting the causes championed by its players.
Threading that needle, however, has proved a task too far for the NFL, which was forced into an embarrassing climbdown after a clumsy attempt in May to define a common policy over how players should react during renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
With the NFL's leadership reluctant to issue a blanket decree ordering players to stand for the anthem, owners instead forged a compromise.
Players on the pitch for the anthem would be required to stand; but players who preferred not to stand would be given the option of remaining in the locker room during the pre-match ritual.
Any player who took to the field and protested under the new regime would be subject to fines issued by their team.
The practicality of the new anthem rules, however, was rapidly exposed when several team owners said they would not fine players for exercising their right to protest.
- Stalemate -
The NFL Players Association meanwhile challenged the validity of the rules, arguing they were inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement and infringed on player rights.
Trump, who had framed protestors as being unpatriotic and disrespectful of the military, claimed the new anthem rules as a victory.
The league, however, announced in July that its rules would be placed on hold while talks between the NFL and NFLPA were ongoing. So far several rounds of discussions have failed to yield a breakthrough.
Trump, meanwhile, has reverted to regularly goading the NFL over its failure to take a hardline stance against protests, calling last month for players who kneeled during the anthem to be suspended without pay.
"The NFL players are at it again - taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem," Trump wrote on Twitter.
"A football game, that fans are paying soooo much money to watch and enjoy, is no place to protest. Most of that money goes to the players anyway.
"Find another way to protest. Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!"
Political analysts have predicted Trump will seek to keep the issue alive in order to rally his base in the run-up to crucial mid-term elections in November, viewing it as red meat for his supporters.
Nike's decision this week to put Kaepernick front and center of its new campaign to mark the 30th anniversary of its iconic "Just Do It" marketing slogan has ensured that the issue of athlete activism will loom large over the opening weeks of the new season.
Kaepernick, who has been unable to find a team willing to hire him since he was released by the 49ers in 2017, appears in the Nike advert above a slogan which reads: "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."
Trump described Nike's decision to promote Kaepernick as "terrible."
"I think it's a terrible message that they’re sending and the purpose of them doing it, maybe there’s a reason for them doing it, but I think as far as sending a message, I think it’s a terrible message and a message that shouldn’t be sent," the U.S. President said.
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