COMMENTARY | Jeneé Osterheldt

NFL players know why they protest, and Trump does, too

Miami Dolphins defensive end Robert Quinn (94) raises his right fist during the singing of the national anthem, before the team's NFL preseason football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
Miami Dolphins defensive end Robert Quinn (94) raises his right fist during the singing of the national anthem, before the team's NFL preseason football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Blackness is never optional. It is not a football uniform.

There is no trading it for another team. A football and a contract don’t end racism.

So when the NFL kicked off its preseason games this week, some players kneeled. Some raised fists. Some walked around or left the field. They’re reminding us: The struggle is real.


But the president wants to silence them. He continued his tradition of ostracizing athletes who protest injustice.

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“The NFL players are at it again,” he tweeted Friday morning. “Taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem. Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their ‘outrage’ at something that most of them are unable to define. They make a fortune doing what they love.”

Colin Kaepernick knew exactly why he took that knee in 2016. It’s why players continue to resist. It is not about the anthem or the military. It is about bringing awareness to a simple, uncomfortable and dangerous truth: Black lives don’t matter in America.

Silencing those who speak out against this inhumanity is the country’s favorite pastime.

That’s why a team hasn’t touched the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. It’s the real reason EA Sports “mistakenly” censored Kaepernick’s name from Big Sean’s verse on YG’s “Big Bank” on the “Madden NFL 19” soundtrack. And it’s why the NFL is trying to keep his claims of collusion from moving forward.


No one really cares about folks standing during the anthem at the football games. People smoke, drink, and pose for selfies during the anthem. They buy hotdogs. They post on Twitter.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had it right when he talked to The Ringer this week.

“If you’re going to take the focus off of what the protest was really about — it was never about the anthem, it was never about the troops, it was about social equality and racial injustice — then make it all about the anthem,” he said. “Everybody in the stadium stands and does the exact same thing. You have people in the concession, people in the bathroom; you’ve got cameramen on their knee watching. You can’t have it one way or another.”

Demanding players stand during the anthem isn’t respectful. Not when black people can’t exist while black without being perceived as a threat. Not when we can be murdered by police on camera — and they get paid leave. Not when the economic disparity is so deep a study shows a black man raised by two parents making $140,000 earns about the same as a white man raised by a single mom making $60,000.

America is not the land of the free. It is the home of oppression. There’s no whitesplaining these issues with retorts about black-on-black crime, unemployment, or single-mother stats.


We can’t outclass racism. Those multimillion dollar contracts don’t change the game for us off the field.

But Trump thinks they should play the game. He’s not taking the white nationalists, er, very fine people hosting a Unite the Right 2 rally in D.C. this weekend to task. He’s not scolding them. But a black man like LeBron James giving back to his community, building schools and giving back off the court? Oh, the president insults his intelligence.

Last year, he called the mothers of some of your favorite players “bitches.” Why? Because NFL players are protesting against brutality and racism. Now, he just wants them to entertain.

“Be happy, be cool! A football game, that fans are paying soooo much money to watch and enjoy, is no place to protest,” Trump tweeted Friday. “Most of that money goes to the players anyway. Find another way to protest. Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!”

Fact: Protests are meant to be disrupt. They aren’t supposed to be polite or fun. These athletes are not protesting for show. They are creating change in their communities. Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch and Los Angels Rams cornerback Marcus Peters run the Fam 1st Family Foundation dedicated to helping underprivileged youth through mentoring, literacy, and education. New England Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty and wide receiver Matthew Slater are fighting for criminal justice reform and better education funding.

But Trump wants them punished? Sorry, the NFL will not be suspending anyone. Not yet.

The league temporarily called quits on the bad call of punishing players for protesting brutality and oppression during the anthem. The NFL and its Players Association are in discussions on how to move forward. Yet the league continues to try and force them to stand.

‘‘The anthem will continue to be played before every game, and all player and non-player personnel on the field at that time are expected to stand during the presentation of the flag and performance of the anthem,” the league said in a statement. “Personnel who do not wish to do so can choose to remain in the locker room.”

Is that patriotism? Demanding folks stand for the flag and dictating how they protest brutality? Patriotism, apparently, is a song and a flag instead of the people.

This is not a compromise. It’s the attempted erasure of a social justice movement.

When John Carlos and Tommie Smith each raised a gloved fist on the medals stand during the 1968 Summer Olympics, it started a conversation about injustice. Had they done that in the locker room, it would have been in vain. Had Muhammad Ali submitted to the war, he might not have shook up the world.

Soldiers are not fighting for a song written by a slavemaster. Soldiers are fighting for our rights. A flag does not deserve more respect than our humanity.

If you love your country, you love your country’s people, right? You expect your country to protect its people, to be a place of equity and justice?

Do we not all have the right to equality, to not be murdered by those who are supposed to protect us, to exercise our right to protest oppression?

Everyone celebrates when NFL players take a moment of silence for a fallen officer, like the Patriots did for officer Weymouth Officer Michael Chesna, who was killed last month in the line of duty. It was the right thing to do.

But when we make space for the brutalized black bodies it’s a problem?

Fighting for this freedom, be it by taking a knee or marching in the streets, coupled with mobilizing and voting to unravel the supremacy in America, is the most patriotic play a citizen can make.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at or on Twitter @jeneeinkc.