NFL players kneeling during the national anthem — and, for that matter, fans booing them — is the stuff free speech is made of, and it’s chilling to hear an American president call for repercussions against anyone exercising such basic constitutional rights. But that’s just what President Trump did on Friday, when he called for NFL owners to fire players who refuse to stand during “The Star Spangled Banner.” Although the message is hardly surprising coming from this president, it marks a new low and a fresh attack on freedom of speech.
Since last year, a handful of players have knelt during the anthem to protest racism and police brutality. That gesture irks some fans, who considered the protest unpatriotic, or simply didn’t like seeing political displays at a football game. Trump managed to escalate an already bitter debate when, at a rally before an overwhelmingly white audience in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday, he used a vulgarity to describe the protesting players — most of them black — as he called for them to be fired.
The NFL, to its credit, condemned Trump’s words. And if the president’s intention was really to dissuade anthem protests — and not simply to aggravate racial divisions or distract attention from his wayward agenda — then his words clearly backfired: Many more players took up the protest on Sunday for the first time. Some teams elected not to take the field during the anthem at all; the Seattle Seahawks were one of them, and released a strong statement that aimed their walk-out implicitly at Trump. “Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms.”
Whatever Americans think of the kneeling protest, for a president to demand teams fire the players is ominous. The last thing America needs is that kind of gridiron McCarthyism. Whether to rise for the national anthem should be a personal choice, and even those who are sincerely offended by the players’ gesture should be able to see how wrong it would be to punish them in the way Trump wants. For a man who denounced “political correctness” during the campaign, it’s rather ridiculous to see Trump wail about how unacceptable he finds the players’ speech.
Virtually lost amid the back-and-forth this weekend were the reasons the players knelt in the first place. When former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the anthem last season, his goal was to protest police brutality after high-profile cases of black men killed by white officers. Other players followed suit, ensuring that football fans would be confronted with a weekly reminder of the country’s racial injustices. The fact the players have now gotten under the skin of President Trump, a man elected on the strength of racial animus, suggests one inescapable conclusion about the protests: As a way of keeping the spotlight on an issue many Americans, from the White House on down, would prefer to ignore, their protest is clearly working.