In the national anthem debate, why does it feel like everyone lost?
Because nothing happened until the black guys were turned into the bad guys
If you had told me last year that a backup NFL quarterback kneeling during the national anthem would lead to the president of the United States co-opting the controversy to reignite America’s culture wars, I’d say you were dreaming.
If you had told me Colin Kaepernick’s gesture would trigger so much vitriol and lead to 200 players kneeling and raising their fists while flummoxed white team owners tried to figure out how many millions they will spend on issues of racial injustice, I’d have said you’re off your gourd.
From that perspective, with NFL owners expected to meet soon to economically support the issues their employees kneeled over, the players won. Like members of a traditional union, they fought the system and extracted concessions from a $15 billion corporate colossus.
So why does it feel like such a hollow victory? Why does it feel like everyone just wants this to go away so we can have guilt-free football again?
Because there was no genuine enlightenment. Hearts and minds weren’t changed.
And nothing happened until the black guys were turned into the bad guys.
Indeed, the tension between the players and team owners was exacerbated last week when Houston Texans owner Bob McNair was quoted by ESPN as saying, “We can’t have inmates running the prison.” (McNair has gone off half-cocked before, telling The New York Times in 2016 that he and others he grew up with respected the “courage” of the Cherokee Indians even though “they might not have respected the way they held their whiskey.”)
In response, most of the Texans’ team knelt during the anthem before Sunday’s game in Seattle. And a planned meeting between players and owners in Philadelphia Monday was called off, with neither side appearing ready to bridge any divide soon. “It is ironic that such a quote would emerge in the midst of an ongoing struggle to highlight injustices suffered by people of color, including our nation’s deeply flawed approach to criminal justice and inhumane treatment of imprisoned people,” read a letter from a group of players that was obtained by ESPN.
The only common ground the two sides shared in the past year was their unhappiness over the leader of the free world calling Kaepernick, Michael Bennett, Malcolm Jenkins and their socially conscious brethren “sons of b—-es,” rotten eggs who needed to stand and salute the flag or be fired.
And that criticism became the new plotline. According to every recent poll on the issue, their country overwhelmingly felt neither compassion nor empathy for the protesting players. Rather, people were angry at them for exercising their First Amendment rights. Once again, the people in power flipped the script and made the protagonists into the villains.
Connect the dots from President Richard Nixon’s silent majority to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” and on to George H.W. Bush employing Willie Horton’s furlough as a reason criminals should remain locked up.
“Now it’s black millionaire athletes who, in trying to elicit positive change in society, have somehow been turned into Trump’s proxy for patriotism,” said Eddie Glaude, chairman of Princeton University’s African-American studies department. “And it’s just the latest iteration of the cultural wars, this kind of insistence that somehow America is losing some of its distinctiveness. And when you unpack what that distinctiveness is, from then until now, it’s really the subordination of whiteness.”
Trump didn’t so much change the narrative — the dislike for black athletes standing up to racial injustice, and the dismissal of their issues — as he brought the biggest megaphone in the world to a narrative that already existed. What was of only passing interest to people outside the sports world became the center of national attention, even by those who have no interest in football or sports at all.
After the league failed to change its rules from “should stand for the national anthem” to “must stand …,” the president tweeted last week, “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!”
The president recognized that American culture and race disproportionately intersect through sports, that if you want to meet people where they are now, you don’t go to cathedrals, synagogues or mosques; we are becoming less, not more, religious. You don’t go to bake sales, city council meetings or Moose lodges, because our beliefs are defined less by communal gatherings and more by people on Facebook. The president keeps going back to it because he has found a political entry point that reaches almost everyone: the NFL.
“There has always been a politically contested terrain in sports,” said William “Sandy” Darity, a professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. “For people to talk about keeping politics out of sports, well, that’s never been the case. Go back to the great boxing fights and the position of Jack Johnson. But now there is almost this overemphasis on how we process things played out in sports.”
“Stick to sports” has always been a pipe dream. From Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, to Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson, our games always have been infused with politics. Now it’s the NFL’s turn on the front line of the culture wars.
This is where those kneeling continue to lose, where America continues to lose. We’re simply not a woke enough country for the players to compete on that battleground.
The billionaire boys club will throw money at the problem and hope that the players will jump back into line to make sure the product is not further harmed and fans are no longer angry. That’s not a rotten thing. It just is. If that money can be used to further social justice, that’s a good thing.
I get it. No one engages in public protest and expects to “win” immediately. You go to the extreme of public protest only when other options (organizing, voting, lobbying, etc.) are going nowhere. The problems are so intractable and the attention paid to them so inadequate that you feel you have to disrupt normal life to get attention.
And most of us prefer order over disorder. That’s the power of protest and why it elicits opposition to the methods, not the issues, whether it be civil rights, labor rights, anti-abortion, anti-war, whatever. If people were going to welcome the debate, the protest wouldn’t be necessary. People who engage in protest are always vilified — as outside agitators, as long-haired hippies, as religious fanatics, as ingrates. And, of course, that’s what happened here.
Trump exacerbated that phenomenon, but he didn’t create it. The themes he hit on already existed and were being expressed last year by the NFL’s majority white fan base, as well as police unions and political commentators.
The majority of people were never going to believe kneeling was a good thing, regardless of any First Amendment argument or what socks Kaepernick wore. If that was ever a potential outcome, the protest would have carried no bite at all.
And in a historical context, the price the players have paid thus far is not that grave. Only one man has lost his job and, at least initially, he voluntarily gave up his position. None of these players has been physically assaulted or arrested in the act of protest, either by opponents or the police, which is common in many, many examples of public protest.
If the league spending millions of dollars on advocating for criminal justice reform is an inadequate response, what would have sufficed? We don’t know the details yet, but that sounds like an actual result. If we’re holding out for the end of institutional racism, we’re going to be here a while.
And yet it still feels like the players lost.
Forget the hypothetical of a kneeling player potentially being blackballed from working in an NFL front office or on a coaching staff years from now. What about the youth league, high school and college kids who have already paid a price for their own demonstrations — getting kicked off teams, publicly shamed by coaches, school leaders and their communities? There are no million-dollar, multiyear deals to cushion their fall.
No one is suffering like heroic civil rights activists of the past. But do they really need a pain-and-suffering bar to clear? We shouldn’t minimize the risks and consequences of their convictions. Or the deeper messages their detractors used to undermine the message.
Rick Perlstein, the historian and author of Nixonland, makes a convincing argument that “football was very much in the wheelhouse of whole silent majority message” and that Trump has essentially copied the playbook.
“The NFL played the game too,” Perlstein said, “taking all that money from the Pentagon to have these patriotic displays. The flyovers by the fighter jets right at the exact moment at which the anthem is finished, all of it. It all helps us link the two, football and the military, as sanctuaries of order.
“Like a military unit, you have to follow orders. When people who are a part of this platoon, the soldiers, start speaking up for themselves, it threatens the whole system,” he said. “It threatens their whole world logic.”
Notes Glaude: “At the very core of this: Whenever black people protest, no matter what form it takes — whether people are trying to run away from plantations, march for their civil rights — it has been reviewed as evidence of disloyalty.”
Indeed, black millionaire athletes are now viewed as an anarchic force in society. Americans of a certain political bent can’t believe their fourth-round fantasy pick has morphed into Huey Newton in pads.
“I really can’t stand that it’s OK for players to dance in the end zone but it’s not OK for them to kneel,” said a co-worker last week. “What does that say?”
It says, regardless of what happens at the next NFL owners meeting, no one has won anything yet. It says we’re more than 100 yards short of unity and understanding. It says this is the beginning of another culture war, not the end of political football.