During a stump speech for Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama in the lead up to a hotly contested Republican primary runoff last week, President Donald Trump couldn’t pass up an opportunity to instigate an old-fashioned culture war.
Trump, who has been critical of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality, inexplicably lashed out at the NFL, while urging its owners to issue pink slips to politically minded athletes.
“Fire them!” the president advised.
In a guttural rage more befitting an oppressive dictator, he reiterated his demand in a blood-curdling scream: “Fire them!!!”
He wasn’t done. Trump referred to such athletes as “sons of bitches” and ridiculed the NFL for taking steps to limit violent collisions. The defamatory language was so inappropriate that NPR had to bleep out Trump’s use of the derogatory word in a recent report on the controversy.
The NFL responded in a statement, but did not refer to Trump by name. On Sunday, more than 100 players—the most since Kaepernick’s fateful protest—took a knee during the singing of the national anthem. Some teams decided to lock arms as a show of unity, while others chose to remain in their respective locker rooms.
Of course, those acts of solidarity were aimed at Trump himself, not entirely as supportive gestures toward Kaepernick and the ever-growing movement he started.
As with all things Trump, he actually took credit for the supposed “unity” on display Sunday. Either Trump truly didn’t understand that players were protesting his own comments or he simply ignored that fact—likely the latter.
Whatever the case, Trump, as he’s done in the past, used his position as a conduit for others who have expressed discontent with sport protests. There’s no question that outward political acts, or even something as small as engaging in conversation about topics unrelated to an athlete’s profession, is almost universally considered blasphemous in the sports world.
In terms of anthem protests, the majority of Americans believe such demonstrations are inappropriate, according to a new CBS News poll.
“Overall, Democrats are approving of the protests, Republicans overwhelmingly disapprove. Independents mostly disapprove. There are differences by race—African Americans are very likely to approve. Among whites, views run along partisan lines.”
The same poll found nearly the same percentage split for those who disapprove of Trump’s rabble-rousing diatribes, and that a majority likewise believes the president’s remarks are intended to distract the public from more important issues. (Son-in-law Jared Kushner’s use of private emails for White House communications, perhaps?)
What often goes unmentioned during the hysteria around player protests is the uncomfortable fact that the NFL and the government have in their own way politicized military demonstrations. According to a 2015 report released by Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both Republicans, the Department of Defense paid millions to sports leagues for “some form of paid patriotism.”
“Certain contracts show that DOD paid for specific activities including on-field color guard performances, enlistment and re-enlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, and ceremonial first pitches and puck drops,” the senators wrote in a press release announcing the report.
“Americans across the country should be deeply disappointed that many of the ceremonies honoring troops at professional sporting events are not actually being conducted out of a sense of patriotism, but for profit in the form of millions in taxpayer dollars going from the Department of Defense to wealthy pro sports franchises,” McCain said. “Fans should have confidence that their hometown heroes are being honored because of their honorable military service, not as a marketing ploy.”
As distasteful as it seems that leagues had to be coaxed by the government to act patriotic, the outrage has been mostly contained. But the act of kneeling during the anthem has taken on a life of its own.
For decades, fans have preferred their favorite players stay above the fray. For many fans, professional athletes are a means to an end. Fans purchase tickets, most of which have skyrocketed in price, pay big bucks for beer and water-logged hot dogs, and expect to be entertained. This level of self-entitlement is so ingrained in sports culture that fans are more willing to excuse poor play rather than an athlete calling out racism or police brutality.
As a result, athletes typically would keep their mouths shut on hot-button issues. But recent events have made the intersection of societal issues and sports inevitable.
Basketball stars have donned “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during pre-game warmups, participated in demonstrations in Baltimore, and more and more NFL players are now taking a knee. Some athletes are going further than simply protesting. Malcom Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles is advocating for criminal justice reform in the City of Brotherly Love, specifically a bill that would seal the records of non-violent offenders after 10 years. Meanwhile, their detractors are yet again arguing that athletes should be “grateful” for the opportunity to play a sport and make millions, while failing to mention that it’s the players that rake in the money for these franchises. College football is a billion-dollar business because fans and TV networks are paying big money to watch and air, respectively, athletes demonstrate their abilities on the field.
Same goes for the NFL. And NBA. And MLB.
That sports commentators and the general public are surprised that we’ve reached this flashpoint in American sports is unfortunately not that surprising at all. Athletes have always been viewed as a commodity.
That they’re humans with real human emotions and real human desires to speak out against injustice is nothing more than a distraction to observers. In their false reality, it’s always simpler to say: “Just play ball.”