NFL, NBA players dissenting against Donald Trump a step towards dialogue, perhaps even social change
The divisiveness wrought by the Trump administration has led to a political awakening of sportspersons arguably not seen since the days of the Black Power movement.
Donald Trump is not averse to the idea of a National Football League (NFL) boycott. Neither are those who support the political movement spawned by Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem last year. In fact, The NFL Boycott Twitter account is nearing 37,000 followers. But within these two expressions of boycott, lies the chasm of opinions which traverse American society in this moment.
It is important to understand that the national anthem is not the target of the athletes’ ire, although it would not be out of place to protest a song which is a “celebration of slavery”. Nor it is condemnation of the flag. Rather, it is a developing conversation which was triggered when the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Kaepernick, chose to speak out against police violence faced by American blacks.
The discrimination became a rallying point for many during the 2016 presidential election campaign, as a white supremacist in the form of Trump rose to prominence. A period of lull followed Trump’s victory but the movement’s rejuvenation was engendered by the active exclusion of Kaepernick by NFL owners. The quarterback has been sacrificed for players with inferior numbers as teams have sought to distance themselves from a politically active athlete. It is worth mentioning that a minimum of six owners came forward to contribute at least a million dollars to President Trump’s Inauguration Fund earlier this year.
But it is a measure of the divisiveness evoked by POTUS that even the NFL, which thought nothing of leaving Kaepernick unemployed, found itself condemning his comments. The outrage is wholly in place. Here’s an excerpt from Trump’s rally in Huntsville, Alabama, on Friday last.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b***h off the field right now, out, he’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s gonna say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in the country.”
Of course, President Trump did not stop there. He went on to stigmatise players with neurological disorders, on account of head injuries suffered while playing American football. It took years for the NFL to acknowledge the problem. But in recent times, the league has introduced penalties for teams which do not get players out of harm’s way after they suffer concussion, settled a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit and made significant financial contributions to companies involved in the development of improved protective equipment. Yet, Trump believes these moves smack of cowardice. He wants tough men to fight it out. The president’s world is rooted in the ideas of white and male supremacy.
But the response has been staggeringly positive. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell found Trump’s comments to be disrespectful. The league’s Players Association also affirmed it would not be “just sticking to sports”. Robert Kraft, one of Trump’s known supporters who also owns the New England Patriots, was “deeply disappointed”.
The evolving conversation around #TakeAKnee has led to it symbolising something greater than its initial rallying point. The movement has promoted discussions about what it means to be a black person in the US today, especially when the country’s presidency is guided by the desire to reverse all the progressive gains made in recent decades. This is why #TakeAKnee, more than anything, is a movement against white supremacy.
This gives a broader currency to the spate of protests. This is no longer an American football movement. In fact, as we saw over the past few days, it has been embraced by basketball and baseball players too. Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry voiced his lack of interest last week in visiting the White House, which led to Trump ‘rescinding’ the invitation to the NBA champions.
A backlash followed, with LeBron James expressing his displeasure at the president’s conduct. Curry’s team also backed him in an official statement. Not to forget, female basketball athletes began to raise awareness about police violence even before Kaepernick chose to kneel last year. That’s why it was not a surprise to see the LA Sparks team choosing to stay in the locker room as the national anthem played before their WNBA finals Game 1 in Minnesota on Sunday.
Oakland Athletic’s Bruce Maxwell, whose father was in the Army, is another name worth remembering. The rookie catcher became the first Major League Baseball player to kneel during the national anthem on Saturday. His words bear retelling. “This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag.”
More power to Maxwell and those who have embraced #TakeAKnee. The divisiveness wrought by the Trump administration has led to a political awakening of sportspersons arguably not seen since the days of the Black Power movement. This gives rise to hope that sport can promote new conversations around race in American society. In the long run, this might be the movement’s greatest legacy.
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