A couple weeks ago, I wrote a column to decry the NFL’s descent into drama and politics. I hate to revisit the same topic so soon, but the events of the weekend leave me compelled to pen a follow up.
Prior to Trump’s campaign rally in Alabama last Friday, the Colin Kaepernick controversy had largely dissipated. Sure, a few sports journalists were bellyaching over the ex-49er’s failure to find a spot on an NFL team’s roster, but the rest of America (and the league) had moved on.
Kaepernick and a few others may have taken a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence and mistreatment of minorities, but Trump’s spittle-flecked rant targeted the entire league. He had called the players “sons of bitches,” pressured owners to fire anyone who refused to stand, and exhorted fans to leave stadiums in protest.
Players erupted in anger, interpreting Trump’s diatribe not only as an attack on Kaepernick specifically, but more generally as an assault on the their freedom of speech. Trump and his cheering supporters were telling them their rights ended at the stadium gates, and they should shut up or lose their jobs. Even players who had never participated in Kaepernick’s protests felt they had to respond, and the coaches and owners had little choice but to back them.
So, on Sunday, players around the league protested Trump to reaffirm their rights as American citizens to speak their minds without the president using his bully pulpit to intimidate them. Protests took different forms. Some linked arms with owners and coaches during the anthem. Some teams stayed in their locker rooms Others followed Kaepernick’s example and took a knee, some with heads bowed and others with hands on their hearts.
In doing so, NFL players showed more appreciation for the principles our flag represents than the president. They did more to honor the values so many sacrificed and died to protect. They reminded us that freedom is under greatest threat not from foreign adversaries or immigrants, but from authoritarian impulses of officials in our own government.
Moreover, we should all recognized the supreme irony that it took Trump, an intellectually and temperamentally unfit demagogue who wraps himself in the flag, to transform an unpatriotic act like kneeling during the national anthem into a patriotic act of civil disobedience.