How Trump Derailed NFL Player Protests

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What remains to be seen is whether the players and their supporters are smart, crafty, and persistent enough to make real change happen.


I was skeptical about what happened in the NFL on Sunday, September 24. Nancy Armour described it this way: “Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan stood arm-in-arm with his players. The Miami Dolphins wearing ‘I’m With Kap’ T-shirts during warm-ups. Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis eloquently explaining his change of heart about players protesting during the national anthem.”

Courtesy: The Hill

NFL moguls joined with line employees, the players, in common cause. Really?

The road to September 24 began two days earlier. Trump had given a fiery and foul-mouth speech about the NFL and player protests. He followed-up the speech with a barrage of tweets.

The NFL expressed outrage. League Commissioner Roger Goodell said Trump was “divisive and disrespectful.” Even quarterback Tom Brady and NFL owner Robert Kraft–two public supporters of the president–rebuked Trump.

I asked: “Is this a one-off occurrence? Or has NFL leadership turned a corner?” Today we know the answer: it was a one-off. No corner turned. It’s business as usual. At least for now….

Trump was crafty, intervening strategically and tactically, to convert what had been a devolving protest (before September 24) into a matter of national interest and concern. Here’s how The Washington Post put it: “What began as an impromptu, crowd-pleasing line at a Trump rally in Huntsville, Ala., to ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now!’ sparked a national debate over free speech, patriotism, racial identity, and cultural values.” Trump, the Post wrote, “scored a touchdown.”

He did it by deflecting players’ concern about police behavior toward African Americans and redefining the issue as players disrespecting our flag. In what became a ‘protest of a protest,’ Trump even had VP Pence stage a walk-out of an NFL game.

Courtesy: Forbes.com

Trump changed the narrative and–in a flip of political significance–the NFL now buys into Trump’s redefinition. Over the weekend, powerful Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, declared that any player who disrespects the flag won’t be allowed to play. On Monday, Commissioner Goodell declared the NFL’s position: “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.”

Trump tweeted in response: “It is about time that Roger Goodell of the NFL is finally demanding that all players STAND for our great National Anthem-RESPECT OUR COUNTRY.”

Player protests have been derailed because Trump out-trumped the players.

Sports journalist Howard Bryant explained why (transcript from ESPN’s Outside The Lines): “I think the players have allowed their movement to be co-opted. It has been co-opted by the president and the vice president; it has been co-opted by the owners; and it has been co-opted by the public. They (the players) haven’t taken control of it. And by not taking control of their own movement, they’ve allowed it to be framed as player versus flag. And if you allow yourself to be pitted against your own country, you’re going to lose.”

Bryant is spot-on and he’s right to use the word, co-opt.

co-opt:

to cause or force (someone or something) to become part of your group, movement, etc.

to use or take control of (something) for your own purposes.

The dicey part of what the players did—something that’s not always wise to do in organizing—is to protest where they work. The workplace brings other issues into play and two are obvious in this case.

Courtesy: FiveThirtyEight

Because players chose to protest when the Anthem is being played, it was easy for Trump to make the protests “all about the flag,” even though the flag has nothing to do with why players are protesting. And the owners want the protests to stop. They don’t like “distractions” from the game and the revenues that NFL games generate. That’s why they’re blackballing Colin Kaepernick–the protest originator and biggest distraction–from playing in the League.

What next for the players? I turn again to Bryant: I think what the players have to do–if they are really serious about this–if they’re really serious about having this not be an existential issue about African Americans, but an actually specific one, which is police brutality and about the relationship between African Americans and the community—is to be proactive about what this is really all about. Because what you’ve got here is the police brutality kneelers on one side. You’ve got the anti-Trump kneelers on the other side. You’ve got the Black Lives Matter arm-lockers. Nobody knows what this is about anymore.”   

That last sentence is critical. No movement can persist without clarity of intent. Martin Luther is a case in point. Through copious writing and numerous public engagements, Luther made it clear why he had problems with the Pope and Catholic Church: he was disgusted with Church corruption and elitism. Reform was needed and a Protestant movement was born. Even under the threat of death, Luther would not allow anybody to co-opt his intent.

Courtesy: PBS

And lest we forget as Americans … protest became a revolution (as in war). A nation emerged.

Reform. Protest. Revolution. Those words sound radical, but they are not. All three are fundamental to who we as a people and how we got here.

But we also know that Institutions fight all three, and institutions always have plenty of affiliates to support the status quo. The Catholic Church (and Catholics) fought Luther. The British government (and Brits) fought the Colonists. Now Trump (with his base and others) is fighting football players. The comparison seems trivial, but it’s anything but that. The struggle today is about human rights and justice—for all.

I’m not surprised by how Trump has approached this. He’s a provocateur of “Divide and Conquer.” What remains to be seen is whether the players and their supporters are smart enough, crafty enough, and persistent enough to enable real change.

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About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.



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Comments (How Trump Derailed NFL Player Protests)

    Samuel H. Johnson wrote (10/12/17 - 2:26:24PM)

    Exceptional!