Racism, Violence, and Trump's Tackling of the NFL

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Racism, Violence, and Trump's Tackling of the NFL

Why is it that so many fail to see that kneeling down is actually standing up?

One long-time national sports conscience, Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, declared that Sunday, September 24th, was “the most important sports day since [Muhammad] Ali decided not to fight in Vietnam.”

One long-time national sports conscience, Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, declared that Sunday, September 24th, was “the most important sports day since [Muhammad] Ali decided not to fight in Vietnam.” (Photo: Shaun King/Facebook)

Millions of football fans must have felt grateful to President Trump for provoking the entire National Football League into a goal line stand last month. The sight of hundreds of players on the sidelines, arms linked with coaches and owners during the playing of the national anthem, not only soothed fears that a disrupted season lay in the NFL’s future, but gave those fans tacit permission to keep on enjoying the games without being too disturbed about brain trauma on the field, collusion in the front office, or demands for racial justice.

Once again, Trump had made it all about Trump, then quickly blitzed on to fresh outrages.

Had anything really happened?

Maybe.

One long-time national sports conscience, Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, declared that Sunday, September 24th, was “the most important sports day since [Muhammad] Ali decided not to fight in Vietnam.”  From it, he foresaw the possibility of a civic conversation emerging that would create “unity in our communities.”

On the other hand, could that Sunday of Accord have actually been no more than a Hail Mary pass designed to briefly shore up a vulnerable sport? Could that show of NFL unity have helped to block growing concerns that, amid a blizzard of negative news and views, pro football was beginning to fade as America’s most popular spectator sport.

In other words, could Donald Trump have saved professional football?  Give him credit for this: he certainly spun a mild demonstration against racism into a flagrant case of disrespect for the flag, the military, our wars, patriotism, the nation, and above all else, of course, Donald J. Trump. With his usual skill, he then reshaped that sizzling package into yet another set of presidential pep rallies for his own fans, that much-invoked “base.” In the process, he also helped highlight the Jock Spring that had stirred last year when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the anthem.  Though it seemed to fade after the initial blast of publicity, it was revitalized last month when the president labeled any football player who knelt or sat or stayed in the locker room during the playing of the pre-game anthem a “son of a bitch,” the same term he used last year to describe the killer in the Orlando nightclub massacre.

Trump’s slur clearly resonated with the resentment many everyday white male sports fans often seem to have when it comes to bigger, younger, better-paid African-Americans who don’t appear grateful enough for the chance to live out their daydreams. Keep in mind that the NFL, like the National Basketball Association, is a predominately black league. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has a relatively small percentage of African-American players, although many Hispanics and Asians. (Only one active baseball player, Oakland’s Bruce Maxwell, an African American, has taken a knee.)

The Coming of the Jock Spring

When it comes to racism and professional sports, the arc from Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Army on April 28, 1967, to Lapchick’s next most important sports day is a distinctly interrupted story. In that long-gone year, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, led by a San Jose State sociology professor, Harry Edwards, staged protests against racism.  Among their demands was that Ali, the heavyweight champion, be allowed to fight again, since every American boxing commission had by then refused to license him and his passport had been taken away. Those protests culminated in an enduring image of resistance: African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrusting black-gloved fists into the air from the medal stand of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The Empire immediately struck back (as it would do 50 years later to Colin Kaepernick). Smith and Carlos were thrown off the U.S. team and hustled out of Mexico. They spent years as jobless heroes.  Ali himself would not be allowed to return to the ring for another three years. The boundaries of the power of athletes to express themselves politically were now set. The O.J. Simpson and Michael Jordan generations of black sports stars would remain determinedly apolitical, concentrated on pleasing the white men who controlled their endorsement contracts. The most revolutionary movement in sports in those years came from women tennis players, led by Billie Jean King, who fought for equal economic rights and an end to the tyranny and corruption of what passed for amateurism (still widely practiced in college sports today).

The Jedi returned in 2016 when, after a week of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a lone gunman’s attack that left five Dallas police officers dead, basketball stars Carmello Anthony, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul exhorted their fellow athletes at an ESPN awards gala to speak up, oppose racial profiling, and use their influence to renounce all violence.  As James said at the time, “The four of us we cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America. The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust, and anger that plague so many of us. The system is broken. But the problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency for change is at an all time high.”

It briefly seemed as if a Jock Spring might indeed be stirring and it seemed fitting as well that it would start in basketball, where international stars with guaranteed contracts in a relatively liberal league had some clout. But there would be no meaningful follow-up until, on August 26, 2016, in a more conservative and controlled sport, Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem before a pre-season game. It was the single most vivid image of American resistance to racism since Smith and Carlos. He was Rosa Parks with a helmet. At some point, someone finally noted the link that connected Kaepernick to Smith and Carlos: Harry Edwards, the now-retired Berkeley sociology professor, was a 49ers team adviser.

As the season progressed, Kaepernick regularly dropped to his right knee because, he said, he refused “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He later referred specifically to the shooting deaths of unarmed black men by white police officers.

Then-candidate Trump’s immediate response was: “I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try -- it won’t happen.”

It took the rest of the season, but another link between 1968 and 2016 became apparent: Kaepernick would be shoved out of the game and left a jobless hero to some (and an ungrateful turncoat to others).  By season’s end, he had become a free agent and Trump, of course, had become president. In a move that could only please the new president, the NFL owners apparently colluded in informally banning Kaepernick from the game. A healthy, 29-year-old with Super Bowl experience, he hasn’t been hired since, not even as a backup quarterback. The rationales have included claims that he’s lost his skills or doesn’t fit into existing offensive schemes. They ring hollow when you compare his supposedly degraded abilities to those of some of the lesser talents who take the field every week.

Even if there was a billionaire team owner whose politics were sympathetic, it seems clear that Kaepernick was simply not considered worth the trouble in Donald Trump’s America. Owners of sports teams are dependent not only on fan support but on media and political complicity to sell tickets and to strong-arm cities into financing their stadiums. Being perceived as soft on “unpatriotic” black athletes could damage their relationships with their own mostly conservative base.

Nevertheless, the blooming of a Jock Spring looked even more likely this season as other athletes stepped up and dropped down. Kaepernick was unsigned but stars like Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins kept the protest alive.  One of Jenkins’ teammates, Chris Long, who is white, even stood beside him, a hand supportively on his shoulder.  After the game, he told reporters, “I think it’s a good time for people that look like me to be here for people that are fighting for equality.”

There even seemed to be a spring awakening in the grandstands and living rooms of America. Some fans questioned the morality of finding pleasure in the deadly head-banging of black guys killing themselves for the entertainment of white guys, even as others began to complain, in a Trumpian fashion, about the intrusion of social issues into what had been considered their sanctuary from real life. There was concern, too, that politics, which they had been told has no place in sports, would upset the personal dynamics within their favorite teams. Coaches have always emphasized the need for “unit cohesion” -- the same catchphrase the military used in the past when it was still trying to keep either blacks, women, or gays out of the line-up.

Trump Takes the Field

And then, of course, President Trump strode onto the field. Not only did he put those uppity black “son of a bitch” players in their place, but he impugned their manhood by saying that there wasn’t enough violence in the game. He similarly dissed the owners and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, daring them to fire any player who refused to stand for the anthem and later tried to go after them where it hurts, tweeting, “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!” (This was, however, a ludicrous claim, since only the NFL’s headquarters, a non-profit corporation, qualified for such exemptions and the league had waived that right several years ago for public relations reasons.)

As a result, pro football’s arm-linking response seemed, at the time, like an attempt to redeem itself to its fandom.  It would, however, turn out to be a gesture that signified nothing more than a hollow pageant of pragmatic unity. To survive, in other words, the league reacted not with a show of force, but with a photo op that they thought might be reassuring to fans and advertisers alike.

That Sunday of Accord was kicked off by Pakistani-born Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the league’s first non-white majority owner and one of at least six owners who had donated a million dollars or more to Trump’s campaign. His team was playing the Baltimore Ravens in London as part of a plan to bolster pro football by globalizing it and it was there, thanks to the time difference, that he became the first owner to stand entwined with his players. 

The NFL is, in fact, moving toward the end of a 10-year collective bargaining agreement with those same players.  It ends after the 2020 season, already sure to be a politically charged year. This will be the first agreement since the full impact of the league’s betrayal of those same players -- its willingness to ignore the widespread brain damage the sport causes participants -- became well documented in the groundbreaking reporting of the New York Times’s Alan Schwarz and then the book and the film League of Denial.

The latest revelations of the link between playing pro football and brain damage put the NFL in the same league with those other classic civic criminals, the tobacco companies and the Big Oil promoters of climate change denial, not to mention a sycophantic media that offered years of cover for all the deniers by creating a false balance in its reporting and claiming a lack of definitive scientific evidence.

Still, the NFL’s biggest concern is undoubtedly the potential drying up of its player and fan pipelines, which has already begun (and to which the president has been lending a distinctly helping hand when, at least, it comes to his base and the league’s fan base). Despite attempts to create safer practice models and tackling techniques for the sport, there has been a distinct drop in youth football participation in recent years as evidence mounts that early play leads to harm.

Prominent players and former players have even declared that they would not allow their sons to play or recommend the sport to other children.  As former Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback and Fox NFL Sunday broadcaster Terry Bradshaw put it, “If I had a son today, and I would say this to all our audience and our viewers out there, I would not let him play football.” After 20 years at ESPN, former player Ed Cunningham even quit broadcasting because of his concerns about traumatic brain injuries. “I can no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot,” he said.

The Sundays since that day of linked arms have offered anything but conclusive evidence as to who’s really winning the hearts and minds of football fans and Americans more generally, but if a guess had to be made, so far the embattled Donald Trump has proven to be the provisional winner. He’s used it to rally his base (and Republicans more generally), while the protests have continued, but at a diminished level, and the owners have begun slipping away from the sidelines and returning to their luxury boxes. Having had their moment of symbolism with their players, they now seem to be preparing for another kind of symbolism entirely.  In their fashion, they are reportedly getting ready to lock arms with Donald Trump by threatening either to bench any players who kneel for the anthem or possibly change league rules to make standing mandatory

And yet, as far as we can tell, the fans have not been heeding Trump’s directive to “leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway.”

Oh wait, one fan actually did.

On Sunday, October 8th, Vice President Pence walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis after about 20 members of the San Francisco 49ers took a knee during the anthem.  Supposedly there for a ceremony honoring retired Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, he had flown in (and would fly out) at taxpayer’s expense (chalk up a quick $242,500) and, reportedly at the president’s bidding, he was clearly planning to walk out as soon as a knee hit the ground.  (A protest was, of course, guaranteed since it was Kaepernick’s former team on the field.)  The VP was, it seems, running a play for the Coach-in-Chief.

Soon after, in a letter to owners, Commissioner Goodell supported standing for the anthem, while one of the most powerful owners, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, threatened to bench any player who did not do so.

The players had yet to come together in any meaningful way either as free men or as mercenary gladiators.  A journeyman veteran, DeAngelo Hall of the Washington Redskins, spoke openly about his concerns for personal financial security, while Russell Okun of the Los Angeles Chargers published an open letter calling on the players to address inequality together.

Then, a seeming turnover.  Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, charging own collusion against his employment.  A few days later, the owners voted, at least for the moment, not to penalize players who refused to stand for the anthem, prompting a protesting tweet -- "Total disrespect for our great country!" -- from Trump.  

So even as the Sunday of Accord became a distant dream, the reality of a Jock Spring was still spiraling in the air. Would it lead to a score by progressive players, would it be intercepted by Trump?  Would America -- sports fans and a-sportuals alike -- come to understand that the issue was more than a political football? Would they grasp that it was a locker-room lesson in how kneeling for principle could be a man’s way of finally standing up?

Robert Lipsyte

Robert Lipsyte

Robert Lipsyte is the jock culture correspondent for TomDispatch. He returns after having been on leave to explore the belly of the beast as Ombudsman for ESPN. His most recent book is his memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter.

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