The NFL has taken a knee in craven obeisance to the man Illinois war hero Senator Tammy Duckworth calls “Cadet Bone Spurs.” And Chuck Todd greeted his Meet the Press audience with a cheery “Happy Memorial Day,” reinforcing how synthetic and shallow our sense of patriotism and national remembrance have become.
More people obsess about big-ticket holiday sales and start-of-summer traffic jams than remember Flanders Fields and other battlefields symbolized by red poppies. For years, taxpayer dollars have underwritten “paid patriotism” marketing campaigns, flyovers and flag drapings at NFL games, fostering a counterfeit love of country among players and spectators.
President Trump now suggests national anthem protesters should not even be in this country, ignoring the freedoms many Americans died to preserve and the rights of full citizenship he would happily deny to even those here legally. Wonder what he would have said three years ago if white NFL players had taken a knee during the anthem to protest Obamacare’s individual mandate?
The debate over the NFL’s new anthem policy was never about honoring the flag or real patriotism. It was always about politics, distraction, votes and money.
QB Colin Kaepernick went from sitting to kneeling so as not to disrespect the flag or those who faithfully respond to the pre-game ritual. The object of his protest, the number of unarmed black people being killed by police, would have received less public attention from the millions in the largely white audience had he and fellow players demonstrated against police injustice outside police stations around the country.
Protests are designed to make people uncomfortable and think. They annoy fans and viewers who prefer to ignore the issue, especially when indulging in entertainment, along with owners fearing possible revenue loss. By late last season, cameras turned away and the number of protesting players dwindled. They had made their point as best they could, and there were diminishing returns from sustaining the kneel-downs.
But polls showing a sharp racial division on the protests offered an enticing opportunity for our cynical race-baiting commander-in-chief. Jumping in and attacking “the sons of bitches,” he could gin up his base and distract public debate from more pressing issues. He craftily changed the focus of the debate and the easily-distracted media followed the shiny object.
Did the NFL think its new policy would make the matter go away? It has allowed itself to be weaponized anew by “Cadet Bone Spurs” and his vice president, who proclaimed the decision a “stunning victory for President Trump.”
The League could have used last year’s protests as a chance to address the problem of unwarranted police violence toward blacks. After all, following high-profile incidents of NFL players brutalizing women, the NFL, concerned about losing female fans, spent millions on public service advertising against domestic violence and sexual assault.
Couldn’t Commissioner Goodell and team owners underwrite a similar national awareness campaign promoting better relations between law enforcement and communities of color? Encourage companies and organizations to launch pilot programs supported by teams in cities with NFL franchises? Provide free tickets and concession food to police officers and black residents to attend games together? As a Cincinnati sportswriter wrote: “Nothing says police-community relations like flashing video of a kid and a cop sharing a hot dog and soda on the jumbotron a few dozen times during a game.”
Will any of this happen? Unlikely. Respect for the flag was never the issue. How many NFL team concession stands are closed for sales during the national anthem? Requiring players to stay in their locker rooms or face fines is a restriction of speech, both that of the demonstrating players, and, if we correctly read the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Citizens United, the right of the audience to hear their protest, silent or otherwise.
The argument that NFL teams are private employers and, unlike government, have the right to restrict employee speech would be more persuasive if teams were not such eager hustlers for tax dollars for publicly financed stadiums and other benefits. So to those who argue players should sue the NFL for abridgment of their free speech rights, I say go ahead, but realize that litigating this issue now will likely be twisted to Trump’s advantage.
There are better ways to redress the power imbalance where 94% of owners are white and 70 percent of the players are black. NFL players have one of the worst collective bargaining agreements in sports, and they weren’t even consulted before owners made their anthem decision. Better to fight back against a plantation mentality by threatening to strike if a better agreement isn’t negotiated. The daunting CTE problem could give players added leverage. Meanwhile, those concerned about these matters can do their part by boycotting NFL paraphernalia or even looking elsewhere for their entertainment.
This summer is the 50th anniversary of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the 200-meter dash, raising their fists in a black power salute during Olympic ceremonies in Mexico City. They were booed then, but honored today. Fifty years from now, history may heap scorn on Donald Trump and his NFL-owner sycophants.
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