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MORRISSEY: NFL is paying the price for selling patriotism

The NFL rejected an ad that was calling for people to "please stand" during the national anthem out of respect for veterans. | Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

I’m guessing the NFL regrets the way its pregame productions have evolved into gooey patriotic pageants, complete with military flyovers, massive U.S. flags that cover an entire football field and red-white-and-blue pyrotechnics. I’m guessing the league, given a do-over about 30 years ago, would have chosen not to pluck heartstrings so hard.

It thought it was safe in championing patriotism. Here was an 18-yard field-goal attempt, a gimme putt, a layup: Who could be against love of country? No one. But the NFL’s immense self-regard couldn’t be content with just that. The league saw itself as a unifying force in this country. Hand over heart, it decided to lead us Americans and pander its way to more money. Teams trotted out military veterans for our approval (and the NFL’s approval rating), and we applauded.

Now patriotism, however you define it, is biting the NFL in the backside.

The league still is trying to come to grips with player protests before and during the national anthem. Commissioner Roger Goodell has asked that players not kneel and, in response, has been ignored. Colin Kaepernick, the player who first knelt to bring light to social-injustice issues and instances of police brutality, has filed a grievance against the NFL, saying owners have colluded to keep him out of the league.

Papa John’s, the NFL’s official pizza company, said it is losing money because of the players’ protests and has pulled TV ads from NFL games. A retired Navy commander recently turned down a game-day honor from the Saints because he’s upset that players are protesting during the anthem. He thinks it’s an insult to the military.

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The owner of the Texans, Bob McNair, got into hot water for saying of protesting players, ‘‘We can’t have the inmates running the prison.’’ In protest, his unshackled players knelt and sat during the anthem last week.

You reap what you sow, and the NFL has sowed patriotism — or at least what it thought was a safe, plastic version of it — for years. Not the messy kind where citizens exercise their democratic rights and speak up.

The league likes patriotism as an ideal, not as a discussion. Now it has an ugly national debate on its hands. Veterans Day is Saturday, and some fans are calling for a boycott of games that weekend to protest the protesting players. They think kneeling during the anthem disrespects the military. Don’t waste your time trying to tell them that the anthem isn’t the property of veterans or active military personnel. Or that the freedom to protest is one of the blessings of democracy. They have a finger in each ear.

The NFL, of course, just wants it all to go away. And, of course, it won’t. Not when the philosophical and political gulfs between owners and players remain so large. The grievance Kaepernick filed last month is a perfect example.

The out-of-work quarterback will have to prove the owners communicated with each other explicitly about banning him over his anthem protests. That’s going to be very difficult. The flaw in his grievance is the idea that filthy-rich sports franchise owners would deem it necessary to put into words what they all believe in their hearts anyway. There’s no need for collusion when everybody thinks the same way. Kaepernick might as well grieve their collective inhaling and exhaling.

Nevertheless, McNair, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will be deposed in the case and asked to hand over electronic communication records, according to ESPN. After digging, investigators will find the owners like fine wine, expensive cars and the cheapest labor possible.

If there were any justice in the world, McNair would be forced to sign Kaepernick for his insulting ‘‘inmates’’ line. The craziest part is that it would make perfect sense for the Texans. They could use an athletic quarterback to replace another athletic quarterback, Deshaun Watson, who tore a knee ligament in practice Thursday and is out for the season. An owner who sees the error of his ways and tries to make a stand for democracy? Now that would be Houston Strong.

But, again, that’s not going to happen. That’s not how these people think. When billionaire Joe Ricketts, the father of Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, saw writers at two of his hyperlocal news websites had unionized, he permanently shut down the operations a week later. That’s how these people think. There’s them, then there’s everybody else. The inmates.

You’ll take a knee when they tell you to. Until then, you’ll stand at attention as the anthem is played and a massive $100 bill is unfurled across the field.

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.

Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com