Sports

The NFL Won't Forget September 24, 2017 Anytime Soon

September 24, 2017 has been a day of immense consequence for the National Football League. Across the nation, an unprecedented number of players, coaches, and even owners have stood—or kneeled—in solidarity in the face of an avalanche of invective from the President of the United States. Donald Trump has demonstrated himself to be perhaps the one human capable of making the NFL look like a sympathetic character in our national story. The president set out to demonize a group of primarily black athletes exercising their First Amendment rights to protest, silently, during a ceremony celebrating American values because they do not think America is living up to those values. It seems his attempt to isolate and marginalize them has only grown their movement.

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Sunday’s protests kicked off during a game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens in London. More than two dozen players from both teams knelt during the anthem, Yahoo! News reports, and many more locked arms together on the sideline. But it wasn’t just the players: They were joined by Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh and, even more consequentially, Jaguars owner Shad Khan.

It’s unusual for owners to involve themselves in any on-field matters, much less something of this political significance. But Khan called it “a privilege.”

“I met with our team captains prior to the game to express my support for them, all NFL players and the league following the divisive and contentious remarks made by President Trump, and was honored to be arm in arm with them, their teammates and our coaches during our anthem,” he added. Khan was one in a chorus of owners voicing their support, according to The New York Times:

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Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said, “I support them as they take their courage character and commitment into our communities to make them better or to call attention to injustice.” From Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns: “We must not let misguided, uninformed and divisive comments from the President or anyone else deter us from our efforts to unify.” Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said in a statement on Sunday morning that “what makes this the greatest country in the world are the liberties it was founded upon and the freedom to express oneself in a respectful and peaceful manner.” He said the franchise was unified by “this divisive political situation.”

Even Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a well known friend of Trump’s, had sharp criticism for the president’s rhetoric.

“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday,” Kraft said in a statement. “I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities. Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger. There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics.”

Former Ravens star Ray Lewis also joined the demonstration at the Jaguars-Ravens game after heavily criticizing Colin Kaepernick when the then-49ers quarterback began this protest movement.

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(Kaepernick has yet to find a new team after his contract expired this summer. A debate has raged over why, with his critics offering a buffet of insufficient reasons, including the unproven claim that Kaepernick is demanding too much money. The fact remains that he is a more talented player than some starting quarterbacks in the league, and many backups. He does not have a job because he engaged in protest.)

Another figure to do an about-face was Rex Ryan, the former Jets and Bills coach now working as an ESPN commentator, who admits to supporting Trump during the campaign. He now seems to regret that decision:

“Everyone’s always been united. Yeah, the views are different but lemme tell you: I’m pissed off,” said Ryan. “I’ll be honest with you. Because I supported Donald Trump. When he asked me to introduce him at a rally in Buffalo, I did that. But I’m reading these comments and it’s appalling to me and I’m sure it’s appalling to almost any citizen in our country. It should be.”

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While the Ravens and Jaguars made their statement on the field, other teams took a different approach: refusing to participate entirely. The Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the locker room during the anthem ceremony, though head coach Mike Tomlin seemed to imply the decision was to protect the players rather than make a statement either way on the issue:

The Seattle Seahawks made the same decision but for far more definitive reasons, according to a statement issued by the ball club:

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Elsewhere, the Giants and Eagles primarily locked arms during the anthem, while a few players knelt or raised a fist. The game featured a military flyover and the unfurling of a giant American flag. According to the Times, there were similar scenes in Buffalo, Charlotte, and Indianapolis.

It wasn’t just those on the sidelines, however. Two separate singers of the national anthem knelt at the conclusion of their renditions, a powerful statement that helped centralize the protest to the event. In Detroit, it was local singer Rico Lavelle:

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In Nashville, Meghan Linsey did the same:

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As ever, there has been plenty of dissent. Many simply questioned whether the national anthem was the right time to protest, and whether it amounted to disrespect for “the flag” or military service members. These arguments often overlook that protest is, by design, inconvenient, uncomfortable, and unpopular with people who do not see the issues being protested as real or pressing.

Then there was Clay Travis, the unreconstructed jackass who went on CNN to talk about “boobs” earlier this month in the context of defending free speech under the First Amendment. Travis went with the tired trope that it was just The Media who’s offended by Trump’s rhetoric because it is out of touch with Real Americans:

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But the president’s comments are not normal, and cannot be explained away. During a period of genuine international crisis, when the United States appears closer to confrontation with a nuclear-capable foreign adversary than at any time since the Cold War, the president has spent an inordinate amount of time calling for the firing or marginalization of individual black athletes and sports media figures who dare criticize him. That rhetoric, at a rally in Alabama Friday and on Twitter almost constantly since, has also included calling players who protest “sons of bitches.”

The president went beyond football as well, targeting Steph Curry with a Mean Girls un-invitation to the White House, which Curry would normally receive as a member of the world champion Golden State Warriors. Curry called Trump’s rhetoric “beneath a leader of a country,” but it was LeBron James who offered the ultimate rejoinder:

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This is the surest sign that Trump’s attacks have galvanized the movement he seems to find so galling. It is no longer just Colin Kaepernick, or even just football players. It involves national anthem singers. It involves NFL owners, who normally don’t seem to see a problem with much of anything at all so long as the money keeps rolling in. And now it involves athletes from other sports, including some of the most recognizable faces and brands in world basketball. It also, if today’s game between the Oakland Athletics and the Texas Rangers is anything to go on, involves players from another major American sport:

For such a relentlessly divisive political figure, Donald Trump has an uncanny ability to unite people against him. That especially goes for people who have a shred of common decency or an even rudimentary understanding of the history of racial justice in this country. Time will tell how the movement develops, but September 24 has been quite a day indeed. What it surely proved, if nothing else, is that Colin Kaepernick may well be remembered as a momentous figure in the long struggle for justice in America. He was the first, and he is paying for his bravery.

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