Talk of politics and the NFL in the same breath sounds like a paradox, yet the two have been intertwined more this football season than ever before. These seemingly distinct entities have found themselves jointly discussed at dinner tables, on the news, and, most disconcertingly, by the President of the United States.
President Trump’s harsh rhetoric concerning athletes, especially NFL players, has led many to question his commitment to upholding the highly-valued freedoms of expression and speech which he claims all Americans are entitled to.
To understand how Trump's fascination and disgust with the NFL began, let’s look back at the origins of the discord.
On August 14 and 20 of 2016, Colin Kaepernick—then-quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers—sat on the bench during the National Anthem, but his actions went unnoticed.
However, Kaepernick's protest garnered attention on August 26 when he made his first pre-season debut, thus sparking the debate. A day later, Kaepernick explained the reasoning behind his protest to the NFL Network’s Steve Wyche.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said Kaepernick. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and [there are] people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick was referring to the influx of police brutality against people of color in recent years. Although this had been a prominent issue prior to Kaepernick’s protests, the influence of social media and increased news coverage have given people a greater sense of the severity of the issue.
Then-Republican presidential candidate Trump first commented on Kaepernick’s protests on August 29.
“I have followed it and I think it’s personally not a good thing,” Trump told The Dori Monson Show. “I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him.”
This response from Trump indicates his lack of sympathy about a serious issue.
Despite accounting for only 13% of the U.S. population, black people were 25% of the 1,147 people killed by police in the U.S. in 2017, according to mappingpoliceviolence.org. This unsettling statistic gives rise not only to what led Kaepernick to take a knee, but also to the major problem inherent in Trump’s response.
In a country where the President is supposed to support freedom of expression and speech, it is evident that Trump does not understand what the First Amendment entails. Colin Kaepernick and the other players that have joined him in protest have every right to kneel for the National Anthem, regardless of whether you agree with their actions or not.
Neither the Constitution nor the rules of the NFL indicate any requirement of standing for the National Anthem.
In addition, President Trump either does not understand or chooses to ignore the reasoning behind Kaepernick’s protests. Rather than listening to the protesters, he continues to claim that the protests are solely about disrespecting the country, the flag, and most notably, those fighting and who have fought in the military.
“The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” tweeted Trump in the wee hours of the morning on September 25, 2017. “It is about respect for our Country, Flag, and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”
The issue of kneeling does in fact have a lot to do with race. Kaepernick has repeatedly explained that he has “great respect” for those who have fought in the military to protect the freedom of this country—a freedom that includes expression.
“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” said Kaepernick in an 18-minute Q&A session with reporters on August 28, 2016. “I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening.”
Throughout this past season, numerous players knelt during the National Anthem or linked arms in solidarity to take part in the protest Kaepernick initiated. Unfortunately, Kaepernick was not part of the action this season; he had opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March 2017 and has remained unsigned by any other team.
Players and reporters alike, including the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman and ESPN’s Adam Schefter, have speculated that Kaepernick’s continuous free agency is a result of owners and general managers blackballing Kaerpernick for his political stance.
Between September 23 and October 23, 2017, Trump tweeted about the NFL 21 times.
He continued to attack the NFL and players who chose to express their displeasure with the current racial climate in the country, furthering his overt racism and unwillingness to understand the situation. According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, the percent of African-American players in the NFL in 2016 was 69.7%.
Trump did not help his case by tweeting praise for NASCAR, a predominantly white sport, for their support of the National Anthem and the flag.
“So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans,” tweeted Trump on September 25, 2017. “They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag—they said it loud and clear!”
In August 2017, groups of white nationalists and Neo-Nazis marched through the University of Virginia campus, protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. President Trump did not condemn this group for their outdated and shameful beliefs, yet he repeatedly attacked NFL players for taking action in support of a more equal nation. His choice to remain seemingly neutral on the situation in Charlottesville, while continuously tweeting about the NFL, speaks volumes about his interests and attention.
Despite the lacking support from the President, athletes across all sports and at all levels have come together in their stance for a more equal nation. Steph Curry and LeBron James have spoken out against President Trump’s negative rhetoric; one MLB player also knelt during the National Anthem. Even some high school football players have knelt in protest during the National Anthem at their own games.
All have been met with backlash.
This is not Trump’s first go-around with the NFL. Back in 1986, Trump sued the NFL for monopolistic practices on behalf of the United States Football League (USFL). Despite a victory, the damages totaled only $1.00, and the USFL ceased its operations in 1987.
Just a few years ago, in 2014, Trump tried to buy the Buffalo Bills, but lost out to Terry Pegula. After losing the bidding war, Trump took to Twitter to express that he was “glad [he] didn’t get the Bills” and that NFL games are “boring” and “too soft.”
Trump has had his beef with the NFL, but his recent dissent from the protests has taken a grave turn.
Whether he’s calling a kneeling player a “son of a bitch” or making a pass at the incidents in his State of the Union address, the animosity between NFL players and President Trump is more apparent than ever.
Perhaps if the President could get out from behind his Twitter account and have a conversation with the players, he could better understand why their choice to take a knee is not equivalent with disrespect; rather, it is evocative of the current racial climate of our country.