Alan Zendell, September 25, 2017
The first time I saw Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem it irritated me greatly. I am unabashedly patriotic, sometimes at the cost of some embarrassment, so what I initially took to be disrespect for our national anthem seriously pissed me off. It didn’t help that I considered the San Francisco 49er quarterback vastly over-hyped at the time.
It also didn’t help that I’ve never been a fan of people who wear their politics or their religion as a badge of honor, especially professional athletes on the playing field. Most people don’t pay to watch an athlete genuflect every time he gets a hit, makes a basket, or catches a pass. Neither do they pay to be exposed to an athlete’s political views.
All that said, when I looked more closely at the growing movement of athletes passively expressing concern over the national epidemic of violence against people of color, I moderated my stance. I also believe strongly in the first amendment, and while I thought such demonstrations rather tasteless, what they were protesting was far worse. I stopped seeing their silent, peaceful protests as disrespect for either our anthem or our flag. I began thinking of kneeling before the flag as somehow akin to flying it at half mast, mourning the fact that it is lessened by the loss of something vital to our values and principles.
I finally accepted the protests as harmless, and even began to feel inspired by the solidarity team members showed. I saw no disrespect for our country. Rather I saw the kind of sadness I felt whenever I thought someone or something diminished my country in the eyes of the world.
When Donald Trump marched into Alabama to support one of the candidates vying to replace Jeff Sessions last Friday, he was in full campaign bombast mode. He was loving throwing red meat to the crowd, loving basking in the wild cheers he so craves. And when he decided to call every NFL player who kneels during the anthem a son-of-a-bitch and implored NFL owners to fire them, he tried to posture his rant along the lines of his patriotic “Let’s Make America Great Again” theme.
But we who have come to know Donald Trump these past two years knew better. The simple, obvious subtext was that all those sons of bitches were black, and the raucous Alabama crowd didn’t have to have that explained to them. This, after all, was the same Donald Trump who thought many of the people marching with the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were fine people. The White Supremacists marching through the University of Virginia campus were spouting racial hatred and expressing their love for their president who they believed had enabled their message with his racist campaign rhetoric.
It’s far more likely that there are many fine people among the players who knelt on the field during the anthem. They spouted no hatred, and many of them held their hands over their hearts out of respect for the flag. Most of the huge crowds attending their games seemed quite content to give them their moment of passive expression. There was no lack of cheering when those same athletes stepped onto the field a few moments later. When a touchdown was caught by a pair of black hands, their owner was embraced by the crowd like a brother. No one screamed traitor or tore up his ticket and walked out of the stadium.
So if Donald Trump claims his attacks on the NFL and other professional sports are based on patriotism, he’s either lying or he’s part of a sad minority who can’t see beyond the ends of their own racist noses. This is the same Donald Trump who will do or say anything to arouse his base at any time, but I’m puzzled this time.
I thought those cheering crowds filling the stands at football games were his base. Weren’t many of those beer-drinking, tail-gating, trash-talking fans the same ones who lined up for his rallies and bought all those MAGA baseball caps? Maybe the Donald has really stepped in doo-doo this time. If he thinks that doubling down to stoke up the same latent racism that won him the election will work here, he may be surprised. Most football fans don’t care what color their heroes are as long as they hit harder, run faster, and score more than the other team.
This should be a very interesting few months. The football season lasts until February, almost until election season, and the television cameras will be watching every week. The NFL is a monolithic entity in this country. Anyone who attacks it does so at his peril.
I’ve always believed that Donald Trump was his own worst enemy. We may soon see whether that’s true.