Over the past few years, the NFL has faced increasing scrutiny for its growing concussion epidemic and domestic violence issues, both serving as evidence in the narrative that the NFL is a destructive professional sports league.

But the NFL did not always have this reputation.

In 2001, Vince McMahon created the XFL as a hard-hitting, working man’s alternative to the NFL, which he saw as “a league for pantywaists and sissies.” 

The following year, Neuropathologist Bennet Omalu revealed the  groundbreaking discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in former NFL player Mike Webster’s brain.  Meanwhile, the XFL sought to captivate fans with a rhetoric of violence, sex and danger that the NFL seemingly did not possess, at least not to the extent desired by McMahon.

Despite positive ratings in its first week, support for the league fell as sloppy football and unskilled players detracted from its initial appeal, and it ultimately lost an estimated $70 million. Now, with the NFL falling 17 percent in TV ratings over the past two seasons, McMahon has announced the return of the XFL for 2020, albeit with drastically different rules and principles.

In addition to the removal of scandalous cheerleaders and inauthentic gameplay, McMahon has proposed a new rule that I argue will undoubtedly provoke the most controversy — banning XFL players from protesting or kneeling during the national anthem. Though the NFL has taken steps in its progress because of its growing public perception as dangerous, it has proven to be an arena for political protest and freedom of expression. By taking away the right of players to protest, the XFL will detract from the progress made by the NFL in pushing for social equality — and in doing so will fail to achieve the level of success at which McMahon is aiming.

McMahon’s newly proposed XFL is largely a manifestation of conservative American values. In addition to banning player protests, McMahon has stated that no former criminals will be allowed to participate in the league.

In response to these new rules, reporters asked McMahon whether or not former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow would be a good fit for the league, to which McMahon replied, “he could very well play.” Tebow, who became famous for his extreme expressions of religious faith both on and off the field, epitomizes the type of player McMahon wants in the XFL — a clean-cut, white Christian male with respect for traditional American values of patriotism and law and order.

However, the NFL has departed from the narrow-minded values praised by McMahon and Tebow, exemplified by quarterback Colin Kaepernick being announced as a runner-up for the 2017 TIME Magazine Person of the Year for his efforts in protesting the national anthem and the system of racial inequality for which the flag stands.

Since Kaepernick began his public protests, he has faced his fair share of criticism, especially from President Donald Trump, who declared  he wanted to “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.” Unsurprisingly, the president and the founder of the XFL have a shared WWE history, with Trump making several appearances on the wrestling show and at one point acting in a stunt and at another shaving McMahon’s head.

Though McMahon recently stated he has not spoken  with Trump at all with regard to the new XFL rules, it would be naive to ignore the connection between the two powerful men and the resulting similarities in their values — an appreciation for all things American and a strong distaste for those perceived as a threat to the existing structure of white male authority, especially in the realm of athlete protests.

So, as the political climate of the NFL has gravitated more toward progressive attempts at dismantling racial prejudice and inequality, the XFL is taking a large step back by banning the ability for players to protest the national anthem. Aligning with the ideology of Trump, McMahon is putting himself in a group categorized by racism and closed-mindedness, and is certainly in no better of a position than he was circa 2001.

Ultimately, in trying to advertise the new XFL as a modern alternative to the dying NFL, McMahon is neglecting the positive strides professional football players have made toward social equality — and it won’t be long before football fans across the country realize what values the XFL truly stands for.

Ben Charlson can be reached at bencharl@umich.edu

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