The story of the weekend was without a doubt Donald Trumps ongoing feud with the NFL. Last week at a rally for Alabama senatorial candidate and possible supervillain Luther Strange, he encouraged NFL owners to fire those ‘son’s of bitches’ who decided to kneel during the national anthem. He then unleashed a barrage of tweets further admonishing those players, 17 tweets in all, despite the White House’s insistence that Trump is focused on more pressing issues like the hurricane in Puerto Rico or the North Korea crisis.
Nearly every NFL team responded with messages of unity and support for their players right to protest. The number of players protesting during the anthem rose from about a dozen in week 2 to over 100 in week 3. Three teams decided to skip the anthem all together.
Most people who are triggered about the players’ decision to protest during the anthem cite the lack of respect for the military, the ‘flag’, and the nation as the primary causes of their discontent. Videos surfaced on social media of fans burning protesting players’ jerseys and season ticket holders tossing their tickets into campfires. Twitter was aflame with hashtags such as #boycottnfl and #standfortheanthem (which, we now know, were proliferated thanks to the help of Russian bots). Players and analysts voicing their support for the right to protest were met with the classic ‘stick to sports’ rhetoric from MAGA-tard trolls and conservative pundits alike.
Unforutnately this backlash (or, perhaps more appropriately, whitelash) is neither surprising nor is it anything new. The voices of the right that claim their disdain for the protests aren’t racially motivated are totally missing the point of the protests. Its not the flag or the anthem or what they might represent they are protesting. These people fail to see the big picture because they are blinded by these nationalistic ideas of the sanctity of the flag and what it represents to them.
These players are protesting during the anthem to call attention to police brutality towards black men, and, more generally, the institutional oppression of the black community. It has nothing to do with the flag or the anthem. Martin Luther King wasn’t protesting brunch during his sit-in campaigns during the Civil Rights movement. He was protesting segregation and by extension the racist Jim Crow laws of the south. Just like how Rosa Parks wasn’t protesting the Montgomery transit system when she refused to give up her seat, or how Mahatma Ghandi wasn’t protesting food when he led hunger strikes in India during their push for independence from the British.
Its also fascinating to me the level of mental gymnastics it must take for these folks to invoke the first amendment, when literal Nazis decide to protest a confederate statue removal with tiki torches and AR-15s, yet when a black man decides to excerces the very same right, all of the sudden he should be fired.
Among the arguments I’ve heard from these folks on the right, one of their favorite talking points is that players should be protesting on their own time. This is utter garbage and is completely ignorant to the entire point of a nonviolent protest. A protest is not meant to be convenient. At its core a protest is a disruption of daily life in order to call attention to something larger. It’s meant to be jarring. It’s meant to force you into confronting something that’s unpleasant or might make you uncomfortable. That’s why the outrage is so telling about the people who are getting mad about these protests. Rather than making an effort to better understand and empathize with the cause these people are trying to raise awareness about, they instead argue semantics. If you want to argue what’s acceptable behavior in regards to the flag, lets closer examine those sematic rules these conservatives seem to hold so dear.
If you are angry that players are somehow ‘disrespecting the flag’, perhaps you should read the United States Flag Code, which establishes advisory rules for the display and care of the flag. Among these guidelines are:
The flag should never be part of a costume or athletic uniform.
The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose.
The flag should never be displayed flat or horizontally.
The flag should never have any mark or insignia placed on it or attached to it.
The flag should never be printed on something intended to be discarded
There are also guidelines in place suggesting that during the anthem, military personnel salute and that civilians remove their hats and stand at attention. But its is just that, a mere suggestion. So if you really want to argue sematics, its true these players are not adhering to the suggested behavior during the anthem. But as we already fleshed out, the whole idea of a protest is to disrupt the everyday accepted norms, no matter how arbitrary they might be. And don’t be mistaken that most of these rules are completely arbitrary. In fact there are no guidelines whatsoever as to when the anthem needs to be played. So why do most major sports do it? When you go into work every morning, do they play the national anthem? Does everyone at your job drop what they are doing, get out of their seats, and stand for the duration of the anthem? Of course not. That would be insane. In the NFL, players didn’t even come out for the national anthem until 2009, when the DoD and National Guard paid the league millions of dollars as part of an effort to boost enlistment. It was simply a marketing campaign by the armed forces to inspire a feeling of patriotism and service, that they hoped would lead folks into enlisting. So if you actually give a shit about these arbitrary rules, then you should be equally outraged at the examples above as you are about some football players kneeling during the anthem. But of course, people conveniently pick and choose when they want to be outraged in order to further their own agenda. An in this case, that agenda is to suppress these black players rights to protest.
Another argument I hear a lot is that these folks believe that protesting during the national anthem somehow translates to a disrespect towards the military. I think this touches on a larger phenomenon, where folks on the right have co-opted support for the troops and the military as a GOP/conservative pillar of ideology. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the nationalistic ‘Trumpist’ brand of conservatism finally bleeding into the mainstream, where all of the sudden a perceived attack on the flag becomes an attack on our nations armed forces.
Once again, the cognitive dissonance that this logic takes is mind boggling. The military isn’t exclusively made up of conservatives, nor do their fight solely for conservative values. The armed forces is as diverse, if not more so, as our nation as a whole; politically, economically, or demographically. The US armed forces fights for everyone, whether you support their mission or not. It seems to me a shameless grab for political capital. Because they have quote-unquote “owned” this issue, Conservatives can leverage ‘support for the troops and servicemen’ as a way to affect policy, whether its increasing defense spending, defending 5th amendment gun ownership rights, and expanding the powers of the police. In my opinion leveraging support for the armed forces in exchange for political capital is thoroughly un-American and is a slap in the face to the sacrifices those soldiers make every day. They don’t fight and die so the GOP can win petty political squabbles. They fight and give their lives in order to protect the rights of the people, which includes their right to protest however they see fit. That is literally the first thing that our founding fathers thought important enough to protect when they wrote the bill of rights. The right to peaceful protest is the most fundamental right that each American citizen is granted, and the founders believed this right was essential to a healthy and functioning democracy.
So its seems to me that the problem here is not the idea of a protest, but it’s the idea of a black man protesting that gets them so fired up. Despite whatever spin the conservative media tries to give it and no matter what other excuses people might have, this outrage is fundamentally a racial issue. And this is something many white people are extremely uncomfortable with confronting in themselves and their peers. Some try to understand and have dialogue and better understand the struggle of their black brothers and sisters. Sadly there are still many who, despite the mountains of evidence and data and anecdotes to the contrary, are still convinced that our country doesn’t have a problem with race.
White folks have had a variety of different ways of dismissing this problem. They harken back to anecdotal evidence that somehow proves they or the institutions they love aren’t racist. Or they revert back to these Fox News packaged arguments citing black-on-black crime statistics or the completely bogus notion of reverse racism (“Black people can be racist too!”). Of course black people can be racist too. It’s not exclusive to white people. The main difference between ‘white’ racism and ‘black’ racism is that there isn’t an institutionalized apparatus designed to systematically suppress and oppress and incarcerate the white community.
One must admit that for a non-woke white person the idea that the deck was always stacked in their favor, that the institutions they have so much reverence for and benefitted so much from are built upon a foundation of racial and economic inequality, forces them to reconsider everything they thought they knew about this country. This realization is no doubt uncomfortable and difficult to process, and this discomfort manifests itself in a variety of ways.
On one hand there are the white folks who have benefited immensely from their white privilege, yet attribute all their success to their hard work or intelligence or whatever. They were born on third thinking they hit a triple. They argue that these oppressed populations simply need to work harder in order to raise themselves up, when they fail to see how difficult the system makes that for those people. They essentially bastardize the idea that ‘we are all created equal’ when the reality is that while we might be created equal, we certainly aren’t treated as such.
On the other hand this issue gets at the core of a lot of the meadia-dubbed ‘whitelash’ that was so prevalent with the rise of Trump and has seemingly boiled over during the whole national anthem debacle. These blue collar white folks, left behind economically by globalization and politically ignored for years by the ‘coastal elites’, are being told that they are the benefactors of white privilege. But they don’t see any of that privilege. They are just as broke and unemployed and dejected as their black or Hispanic neighbors, yet everyone is telling them they are still better off because they are white.
When it comes down to it, the intent of these protests are for people to open up a dialogue about the systemic ills of our country and to better understand the struggles facing our fellow citizens. However those who seek to divide us for political or economic means have corrupted and belittled the effort. And that is what is truly sad to me. That there are people in power willing to alienate and disenfranchise one group of people in order to appease a different, less-enlightened group for their own means. They are preying upon the most basic insecurities of their citizens and twisting it into a malicious and dangerous vitriol in order to fortify their grip on power.
At the same time, I can’t help but feel a sense of civic pride that these athletes have risked their jobs and their reputations and their safety for the greater good of their communities and the nation as a whole. They are willingly subjecting themselves to (misplaced) criticism and censure and rejection. This is certainly not what these players signed up for when they joined the NFL, however they recognized the problems affecting their community and used the only platform they had, football, to try and make things better. I’ve heard pundits say that if it weren’t for football, these men would be on the streets or in prison, and that they should be grateful for the opportunity. And its sad to me not only because its true, but that this is precisely the problem they are trying to raise awareness about. I find solace in the fact that these athletes will, in the end, find themselves on the right side of history and be viewed as champions for decency and empathy and equality.