Taking a Knee
As a rabid New York Giants fan, it’s hard enough watching football without the extra added annoyance of having to endure political statements along the way. I get it, the First Amendment and all, but I’m in the “shut up and sing” camp when it comes to entertainers. No one covered themselves with glory this weekend, but once again, the main culprit for the polarization of views is the media that managed to turn everything into a political battlefield.
For starters, let’s go back to square one when an obscure quarterback decided to protest what he called oppression of people of color by taking a knee during the national anthem. This came on the heels of the Ferguson “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative, which turned out to be untrue but continued the Obama theme that the nation was institutionally racist. It’s hard to get into the head of the quarterback to know if these sentiments were so heartfelt that he was compelled to use his highly visible workplace as a forum or whether frustration about his professional status clouded his judgement. He had been a superstar college player at Nevada and early in his pro career had led the 49ers to their first super bowl appearance in ages, and the following year to the NFC Championship Game. In the next couple of years though, he had been benched several times for non-performance and was struggling to keep his job.
The kneeling incident was very controversial and garnered support from some fellow players but gradually faded as the Ferguson meme was discredited. And now the quarterback is a free agent no longer in the league. As to whether that’s because he is a mediocre player or whether owners don’t think he’s worth the PR hassle, the answer is probably … yes. Then along comes VA, and the issue of using the national anthem to make a political statement at football games resurfaces. One man’s view of the participants is as follows.
First, the players. The biggest unknown to me is why. It’s no secret that the U.S. isn’t perfect when it comes to race relations, but do athletes really believe that the country which has given them the opportunity to make millions playing a game is oppressing people of color, when minorities comprise a huge majority of the players? Is it a protest against perceived white-on-black police brutality, which in spite of Obama administration claims, is in no way representative of the vast majority of police conduct? I doubt seriously that those taking part are even thinking that it’s a way to disrespect the flag or the country, but that’s what many on the other side of the issue see. If the goal is to improve race relations and provide better family stability and job opportunities in black communities, taking a symbolic knee at football games hardly seems the optimal vehicle.
My guess is that we have a few true believers on some teams whom the media has exploited in their efforts to perpetrate a “racist USA” narrative in the era of Trump. The media claims that the protests are all about racial equality and that anyone who dissents from that view is a divisive racist. The more likely explanation is that peer pressure to support the protests is at work, and anyone who has spent time in a team locker room will get that. Most players just want to play, and all coaches just want to coach. They should save the protesting for their own time. Some coaches even tried to keep their teams off the filed for the anthem to eliminate that conflict, so, as you can see, straddling the line of support for the flag and solidarity for teammates is not a layup. But if you want the answer in a picture, try the photo of Tom Brady yesterday with his right hand over his heart and his left arm locked with a black teammate during the anthem.
The owners and league officials are in a box. They do not want themselves or their teams to be considered racist, but also do not want to alienate an audience for their product that might view the conduct as disrespectful to the flag and the memory of those who fought for it. Ratings are down, but it’s not clear if that’s simply due to bad football or if political theater is also to blame. The owners are also influenced by the media that is making it difficult for them not to be First Amendment purists by casting any middle ground as a racist attack on the very employees that bring in the millions for the owners. So we get a lot of “Yes, but…” — as in no one wants to disrespect the flag but everyone has the right to protest peacefully. There’s no argument on the latter, but management also has the right to impose consequences if the business is being impacted. Just ask NASCAR.
The there’s Trump. Once again, his arguments make sense. If you take his words literally, and not skewed by media spin that claims it’s all about a racist dog whistle, he has a point. It’s all about showing respect for the flag and the country and zero about race. And if folks want to improve the racial climate, there are far better ways to do it. The problem is the style. Yelling at the owners to fire the SOBs might get front page attention, but it does little to address any underlying racial strife. Trump can certainly disagree (why is his First Amendment right any different from the players?). But wouldn’t it be better to see the incidents as a way to foster dialogue on racial issues and lead by using the influence of the office and the athletes to find common ground? Not only would it be the presidential thing to do, it would contrast him with his predecessor and give the media nowhere to go.
Little of this makes sense. The players are athlete entertainers engaging in a child’s game for mega bucks, not social justice warriors. And the grid iron is hardly the place to air grievances other than those against the folks across the field. To common sense Americans living paycheck to paycheck who only want a small escape from reality on the weekend, the players come across as spoiled children who don’t even know what they are protesting. The owners and the league are being told by the media that they must stand behind their 80% minority employee base lest they incur the wrath of media racist name calling. I’m sure most would rather have the whole thing just go away, but absent that, they are simply trying not to let the circumstances tear their teams apart and worsen the ratings slide. The most stunned people on the planet are those who bought teams decades ago for peanuts and never expected them to be worth nearly ten figures now. No owner wants to see that jeopardized.
Trump should can the over-the-top rhetoric and use the protests as a way to get racial issues on the table with a common sense discussion. Regardless of Trump’s intent to support the flag, the media will not let that narrative anywhere near the surface. It’s about race with the media (with Trump in the white supremacy role) and always will be. Unless Trump really is using the tweets to divert attention from other issues, he should know that and use the power of the office to steer the conversation to forums that might actually be productive. The 50-yard line is definitely not that place.