COMMENTARY: Super Bowl LII amid a star-spangled controversy

On Sunday night in a chilly Minneapolis stadium where the temperature was reported at zero degrees with a wind chill of minus-14, the upstart Eagles, who had never won a Super Bowl until then, and five-time Super Bowl champions faced off in Super Bowl LII. It was a thrilling game that had a jaw-clenching conclusion as the Eagles won against the Patriots 41-33.

All across America, an estimated over 111 million Americans tuned in to the game as billions of dollars were spent on chicken wings, pizza, chips, and drinks. An estimated 1.35 billion chicken wings were consumed, with the average American spending just over $80 on Super Bowl consumables and events.

Yet this year’s Super Bowl took place amid a big star-spangled elephant in the room. A matchup between the underdog Eagles and longtime champion Patriots would normally bring lots of heated passions, but of the fan interest sort rather than political or cultural.

With the controversy over standing for the national anthem at games still marring the sport, this year’s Super Bowl was met in the leadup by political division that has caused incredible and emotional polarization in one of America’s most entrenched and previously unifying national pastimes.

While controversies such as Deflategate and the CTE crisis have emerged sporadically in the NFL over the years, it was really in fall last year that NFL players kneeling in response to the anthem and flag that it began to take off in a more political and cultural direction.

Then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling, rather than sitting as he previously had, for the national anthem in the fall of 2016, yet it took a year for the protests to really spread among other players and teams.

And when it did finally spread, we saw how a sport that had long been characterized by tribal opposition take a political tone, as each team suddenly found itself having to decide its policy on kneeling. Many fans demanded that their teams kneel, while others threatened boycotts and abandoning even long-beloved teams over kneeling.

Some teams even split, such as when Pittsburgh Steelers player and U.S. Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva came out to stand for the anthem while the other players decided to try to avoid controversy by remaining in the locker room. It is worth noting that in later games the entire team stood for the anthem.

Eventually in early October it seemed as if the kneeling controversy would be put to an end when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to NFL team owners saying that they wanted the players to stand for the anthem. Yet by then Pandora’s Box already had been opened and the kneeling protests have continued sporadically since.

The NFL controversies have been complex, as on one hand undoubtedly almost all Americans wish to address systematic abuses and inequities that face some of us. However on the other hand, to disrespect the national anthem and turn a unifying sport like football into a political battleground adds to our national division at a time when we already are at dangerous levels of polarization.

Perhaps the best way will be for Democrats and Republicans to come together to seriously examine and ensure that our criminal justice system is truly protecting the liberty of all Americans properly. Indeed there is hope on the horizon in this regard.

As one example, In October last year Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) brought together a diverse bipartisan coalition in the Senate to present the “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017.”

The act, which unfortunately has not moved anywhere in the legislative process this session, would revise perceived inequities in criminal sentencing for non-violent drug offenders, promote rehabilitation for low-risk convicts, and create a national commission to make a serious comprehensive examination of our nation’s criminal justice system.

The issues surrounding law enforcement and criminal justice are extraordinary complex and can be deeply polarizing, but it is worth remembering that the overwhelming of Americans want an equitable and just system that protects our freedoms while also punishing criminals and securing our communities.

And so while millions of Americans still enjoyed Super Bowl LII despite the controversies of the past year, it is worth hoping that we can someday again enjoy a great sport like football without such heated political controversies as well as ensuring that “liberty and justice” for all is truly the case in our country.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Erich Reimer is a Washington-area entrepreneur and political commentator. He has been involved in national public policy for over a decade.

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