An Open Letter To The NFL Anthem Protestors

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 need 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 Satell

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Originally published at




Bestselling Author of Cascades and Mapping Innovation, @HBR Contributor, - Learn more at — note: I use Amazon Affiliate links for books.

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Greg Satell

Greg Satell

Bestselling Author of Cascades and Mapping Innovation, @HBR Contributor, - Learn more at — note: I use Amazon Affiliate links for books.

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