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POV: Trump and the NFL

President’s playbook: to “gain by creating divisiveness in every corner of the world”

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I teach a course titled Sport Theory and Social Systems (i.e., sport sociology). We examine controversial issues such as doping, gender inequity, racism, violence, religion, and politics with the aim to reimagine how we might better utilize sport for good in our society. Last week we addressed President Trump’s remarks in Huntsville, Ala., on September 22, criticizing former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before football games last season. Trump charged that Kaepernick was disrespecting the flag, when, in fact, he was actually protesting police brutality and demonstrating solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. In this oddly timed quarrel with Kaepernick, Trump directed NFL owners to fire anyone who does not stand during the national anthem.

To see Trump’s attack on Kaepernick as anything other than race-related is increasingly difficult. Go to any NFL stadium in the country and observe the scores and scores of mostly white patrons of these venues talking, buying hot dogs and beer, and going to the restroom during the playing of the national anthem. No one ever takes them to task for dishonoring veterans or the flag. But if one black player makes a silent but solemn protest, it is national news.

In class, we talked further about the debate that has circled around Kaepernick. Trump called on NFL owners to “fire that son of a bitch” for his protest, although ironically Kaepernick is not currently employed by an NFL team and is a free agent. One student noted that Trump was just creating a distraction from the recent failures and controversies of his administration. Another said that Trump’s comment had pushed NFL owners and players into a corner and goaded them into taking action in favor of the protest. Many Americans, including several NFL owners, originally supported Trump during his election campaign in part for his willingness to say what was on his mind. But every day, more and more Americans realize that what is on Donald Trump’s mind is not pretty. It seems to me his playbook is to gain by creating divisiveness in every corner of the world.

To fire someone for exercising their first amendment rights is unlawful and antidemocratic. But Trump has already shown his cards when it comes to the struggle people of color face with police brutality. On July 28 he casually and openly endorsed police brutality in a speech to law enforcement officers. His rhetoric when discussing the violence in Charlottesville in August, when he told reporters, “I think there is blame on both sides. You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” has encouraged racist attitudes and emboldened white supremacist groups.

Another student observed that the purpose of Kaepernick’s protest had been co-opted by Trump and others for their own purposes. The Seattle Seahawks linked arms in solidarity with Kaepernick’s protest last year. Trump recently tweeted that he approves of players linking arms, but not kneeling. This shows he either did not understand the Seahawks’ show of solidarity or is repurposing it. On September 25, Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, owner Jerry Jones and his family, the police chief of Dallas, families of slain police officers, and the entire team kneeled before the anthem and stood during it. One student noted that Cowboys owner Jones was just protecting his investment. But this highly choreographed yet still thoughtful act aimed to show solidarity with an identified struggle against police brutality and then to honor the American flag by standing. These gestures attempted to decouple these two narratives, but somehow many in our country will not allow that to happen. Critics are now dismissing any of these team-organized protests as hollow, gentrified whitewash, and without meaning. But how NFL coaches, players, and owners are considering the issues is surely better than how the NFL brass and ownership have completely missed the boat on other vital issues, like domestic violence and player safety.

If Trump is so hell bent on belittling others and talking tough that he can even threaten the annihilation of North Korea, then NFL owners and coaches must decide how they are going to respond. Can they meaningfully act in solidarity with their predominantly black players while they continue to shun Kaepernick? In my course, we look at athlete activism, and it is clear that athletes such as Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammed Ali, and Billy Jean King were viciously denounced and abused during their playing careers, but eventually were lauded for their courage to stand, or in Kaepernick’s case kneel, for what they believe.

I recently heard one radio talk show regular characterize athletes kneeling during the anthem as a “desecration of the flag.” It made me think back to the summer of 1968, when I was seven years old. I remember watching two of the American Olympic medalists in the 200 meters, Juan Carlos and Tommy Smith, raise their fists during the playing of the national anthem. Not understanding their gesture, I looked to my father. I do not remember what he said, but he looked at them with disdain. He was an FBI agent and the Black Power salute used by Carlos and Smith was at the time a gesture associated with the Black Panther Party. The director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, saw the Black Panther Party as a violent threat to society. My father was a World War II Army veteran and a US Marine prior to joining the FBI. He spent his career involved in counterintelligence against spies of the former Soviet Union. One of his proudest moments was when the Berlin Wall was demolished in 1989. He continually risked his life and always felt it was a privilege to serve his country.

It is not hard to understand where my father was coming from. He was a patriot and served democratic ideals. But for black Americans it is different: if they speak out to make a more just and equitable society, they are vilified. After the Smith and Carlos protest, they were booed. Smith later that evening in 1968 said, “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.” My father’s feeling that it was a privilege to serve his country and defend its democratic ideals was a different sort of struggle than Kaepernick felt compelled to wage. Tommy Smith voiced the ambivalence blacks and other peoples that have suffered a long history of oppression feel.

Fans will soon tire of being confronted daily with the thorny issues of privilege, freedom, and our racist history at sporting events. Sport teams at all levels are more successful when players learn to become more selfless and act in the interest of the team. It is a life lesson that can be drawn from participation in team sports. And teams like the New England Patriots have prospered under the highly conformist culture created by Coach Bill Belichick (Hon.’04). Trump’s decrees on Twitter about what forms of protest are acceptable, however, will surely present challenges and opportunities for coaches and teams as they wrestle with societal problems while trying to stay together in the arena.

John McCarthy (SED’04), a School of Education clinical associate professor and director of SED’s Institute for Athletic Coach Education, which offers training and education for coaches in the community, particularly those involved in youth sports, can be reached at jmmcc@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.eduBU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University. 

20 Comments

20 Comments on POV: Trump and the NFL

  • Cynthia Korhonen on 10.04.2017 at 6:54 am

    Thank you! I hope that everyone at BU takes the time to read this POV… and sends it to others. If something goes viral, let it be this POV.

    • Sami Burnette on 10.04.2017 at 9:37 am

      Very much agree. Well said.

    • Carol Suby on 10.04.2017 at 3:46 pm

      I would like to suggest that Trump Pick an evening whereby — on National Television — he will read the entire Constitution of the United States of America. This action might have the POWER to capture the attention of our Citizens who care so deeply about our country, while also educating the President of the United States regarding the Constitution that he was elected to uphold.

    • michael on 10.04.2017 at 4:13 pm

      Yes it’s so powerful to see multi-millionaires take a knee against their oppressors. It’s ironic that even the league minimum is 450K a year which puts every player in the top 1% of income earners…for playing a game. boo-hoo so much oppression and injustice how do they live?

  • Anna on 10.04.2017 at 7:41 am

    How about not angering fans? NFL players have abused tbeir celebrity by acting inapproriately. The anger divides. Nothing positive was achieved. All American people need to better respect and value each other. Black lives matter.

    • kelle on 10.09.2017 at 8:05 pm

      peacefully protesting by NFL players angers fans, but not rape, domestic violence and murder by NFL players?

  • gman on 10.04.2017 at 8:32 am

    Sadly most people are completely unaware that Colin Kaepernick started kneeling as opposed to sitting. It was after he was first shown on TV sitting that he and former NFL player and retired Green Beret Nate Boyer met and had dialogue over the issue of police brutality and what Colin was trying to accomplish. The two came to an agreement on the issue and Colin agreed to take the knee instead of sit. If this initial dialogue were brought to most people’s attention they might stand down on the criticism.

    I will point out that the author’s analogy of “white people” not standing during the national anthem not gaining any anger from people is misguided. They are not stars or athletes, they aren’t public figures, and they aren’t looked up to except for maybe some those who know them personally. However, as a United States Marine, I will say that for the past 20 years, each and every time I stood up and witnessed many around me not standing, well, it was kind of irritating to me I admit, but not to the degree where I would make as issue out of it and confront them.

    On another note, I see people disrespect others while trying to board the green line, or the MBTA, on an almost daily basis. Oh yes, each and every day I witness people cutting in front of others so they can secure a seat on the crowded trains. I find this activity much more unnerving than when someone ignores the national anthem. Why? Because the actions are actually affecting people, its more than symbolic. I witness some of these same people sit on the train while elderly, woman with small children, and even pregnant woman, are forced to stand. If you witness this behavior, don’t be afraid to speak up for what’s right and teach these people to be respectful. There’s no law that states you can’t cut someone in a loosely formed line, and there’s no law that states you need to give up your seat for someone who might need it more than you, but in the end, if you do unto others as you would want done for you, well, enough said.

    • Jerry on 10.05.2017 at 11:11 am

      Great commentary!

  • Dan on 10.04.2017 at 9:32 am

    Just remember that if you refuse to do, like, your ACTUAL job and refuse to dispense legally prescribed medication as a pharmacist, or refuse to allow two people to get married in accordance with law- and say it’s because of myths in a book that you never actually read or tried to interpret- then you’re the darling of the month for the right-wing.
    But hey, here’s a guy whose job it is to play football, and he’s damn good at doing his job, and he’s making a purely symbolic gesture out of a moral belief that doesn’t actually do harm or infringe on anyone’s rights- that’s “divisive”, “unpatriotic”, and “disrepectful”.

    • Mike Siroky on 10.04.2017 at 7:23 pm

      Not performing a marriage ceremony is protected by the first amendment freedom of religion. I am sure you wouldn’t object to someone refusing to report for military duty if they had a religious objection to killing? You have heard of conscientious objectors, haven’t you?
      Now football players have every right to express their opinions during the playing of the national anthem. And former NFL fans also have a right to turn off the TV and return their season tickets.

  • S Moriarity on 10.04.2017 at 9:34 am

    I completely disagree on your thoughts that this is about race. The President would have called anyone out – regardless of race- for disrespecting the flag. I do not like the kneeling but am ok with linking arms – why because race inequality has nothing to do with the flag so don’t take out your frustrations on the flag and disrespect our great nation. That’s not how we fix things Band together, speak out, – use the freedom of speech to make and sponsor PSAs with the millions of dollars you earn playing sports, live by example. Kneeling sitting whatever during the National Anthem does nothing but make you look like an unpatriotic jerk. The flag represents all the hurdles we have conquered all the progress we have made all that we can continue to do to make our world a better place Seriously, when I saw the team linked together it moved me I paid attention I was interested in the cause. When I see some kneeling I just think “what a bunch of jerks, is that the best they can do??” I’m certainly not rich and I can do a lot more than that. People are starting to ignore the constant liberal complaining because it’s all any of them ever do anymore. Complain. Complain complain about absolutely everything. Nothing absolutely nothing the President does is ever ok. People are growing weary and tuning it out Less talk more action that’s how you will get things to change. Let’s start small, how about smiling and offering someone a fresh towel

  • Sami Burnette on 10.04.2017 at 9:36 am

    Very well said.

  • Gregg on 10.04.2017 at 10:21 am

    Would a more appropriate protest of police brutality be a peaceful protest, locking arms and/or kneeling around the public property of a police station that practices brutality?

    NFL players’ participation in protests at the police stations would still draw attention while keeping the focus on the act that deserves protest and elimination – the protests could be the teams’ first stop when arriving to play a game (at stations that participate in police brutality – they can also show appreciation and support for all other stations that do not practice brutality). Thankfully, the majority of police officers heroically run toward the bullets, and toward burning vehicles and buildings, putting themselves in danger to protect and save the lives of citizens. We enjoy public events including professional sporting events in a safe atmosphere because of the police.

    Protesting by sitting, kneeling, ignoring, avoiding or otherwise disrespecting our traditional observance of our national flag, national anthem, and our pledge of our allegiance to the flag of the USA and to the Republic for which it stands, is misplaced and unrelated. This protest is an ineffective protest which offends the majority of the nation, causes citizens to question ‘how does this protest relate to that which is being protested?’, and to question ‘what is the point of this protest, and how is it helping to right a wrong?’.

    While the focus is drawn to the opening ceremonies of sporting events (please not during the Olympics) how about adding a pre-game prayer (as NASCAR does), and then the Pledge of Allegiance (as school classrooms did, and some still do) prior to the national anthem, and then the perfectly-timed F-16 formation fly-over and fireworks, and then enjoy the game! Then at the end of the game, the athletes line up and shake hands after the well-played competition (as they did in little-league), and then the fans thank the police and security teams for another safe event as they leave the stadium.

    It’s just a game, however, fans are able to enjoy and are privileged to participate in this land of the free, home of the brave. Thank you Dad, for your service to our country during WWII, and to all service members and veterans for your service to our great country that allows us the privilege to travel and attend events safely, and to participate in our communities and engage in our government leadership, and to peacefully protest that which is wrong to make it right.

  • cangel on 10.04.2017 at 11:22 am

    Colin kneeled for what he stands for, the injustices, the inequality that we are facing and have faced. He had others supporting him, nothing wrong with that. A year later, Trump decides to call anyone who “is against the flag,” a “son of a b….” This had nothing to do with the hate of the flag or our veterans. It’s sad when people will complain about taking a knee, but say nothing about a president who thinks it’s OK to call people out of their name and disrespect someone’s mother like that. That’s very sad!!!

  • Helen on 10.04.2017 at 1:30 pm

    An excellent read. Good to see a thoughtful and reasonable piece about this very complex issue.

  • john on 10.04.2017 at 4:05 pm

    What a bunch of left wing liberal BS. I can’t protest on my employers time, why should a bunch of millionaire crybaby’s be able to disrespect our flag and the veterans. Why don’t they actually do something constructive and donate some of their money for police body cams, violence prevention, or address the fact that Chicago is a war zone. I guess those things are too hard, it’s easier t take a knee to protest some vague view point that all cops are apparently racist. I already joined the NFL boycott, haven’t watched a single game and don’t plan to buy any NFL merchandise anymore.

  • Mike Siroky on 10.04.2017 at 4:45 pm

    That’s great that you teach about gender inequity. Now how about the extraordinary arrest rate among NFL players for domestic abuse – formerly known as wife-beating. Is there anything more “unequal” than a 130 lb woman being beaten by a 250 lb football player? When compared to comparable national cohorts of the same income and poverty level, the rate of domestic abuse among NFL players is out of control (4 times the expected rate). Blacks are much more likely to suffer harm and violence form each other than from the police. Protest that.

    https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-rate-of-domestic-violence-arrests-among-nfl-players/

  • Andrew Wolfe on 10.06.2017 at 1:40 pm

    To use your employer’s time to make a political protest isn’t brave, and at least the owners were craven enough to show that they were in on it.

    To demand the right to disrupt every bit of entertainment and life to make these protests is to claim that the Constitution is completely incapable of resolving grievances like these. In fact, Congress and most state legislatures have addressed issues of racial inequities numerous times – Kap and the other kneelers are simply saying because they didn’t win the vote among our elected officials, the whole system is broken. This is very much like Black Lives Matter, in which several chapters have openly called for a complete revolution against the Constitution.

    To call this racism demands an explanation for the many black people who don’t agree with the kneelers. As a white person, which black people should I believe? A few hundred among the super-high-paid black one-percenters who don’t even know the right time to protest, or those who believe in the rule of law and the democratic republic laid out for us by the Constitution?

    The NFL kneelers are completely unlike MLK whose protests on racial inequality never, ever showed any disrespect for the rule of law or the Constitution, nor did he accept any disorder or violence even in words, and which made an appeal to the better nature of white America and the beliefs shared by the many in the Christian faith. He convinced us and we embraced civil rights and black equality. Are their whites among us that aren’t on board? Yes. Are we still trying? Yes. Do we think the country is so broken that recurring debate is now so hopeless that all civil life must be interrupted with protests? No way.

  • JJ on 10.06.2017 at 1:54 pm

    Mike Siroky, thank you for providing the link. But you need to read the article more carefully. That’s not what it says – not even close.

  • Tim on 10.10.2017 at 9:25 am

    ‘To see Trump’s attack on Kaepernick as anything other than race-related is increasingly difficult.’

    Isn’t it interesting that every little action has to be interpreted as a racial slight? Funny thing though, I remember when white hippies of the 1960s burned flags in protest of the Vietnam war, there were an awfully lot of white people upset with them, even to the point of beating some of them.

    So instead of always seeing something in terms of race, which the left always seems to do, let’s get back to the real issue. People think it is disrespectful to intentionally refuse to honor the flag and our national anthem. There is a difference between someone who is buying a hot dog and can’t make it back in time for the national anthem, and someone who defiantly refuses to honor the flag and what it stands for.

    In spite of huge shifts in racial attitudes in this country, and tremendous progress, the left will always continue to try to divide by seeing race as a motivation behind every perceived injustice. This is because it’s the only way that they keep their power base.

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