CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Billie Weiss/Getty Images/Getty Images
FOXBOROUGH — If we’ve learned one thing about President Donald Trump it’s that no one is safe from his ire and his hair-trigger personal and political polemics. But good luck trying to bully the most powerful sports league in the land, Mr. President.
Trump might not be able to unite the citizens of our deeply polarized country, but he managed to unite National Football League players and owners in indignation and condemnation of his view that pro football players forfeit their freedom of speech protection once they slip on a helmet.
Football repudiated the president with an unprecedented display of anthem demonstrations and protests on Sunday. If Trump’s goal was to motivate the NFL into ending the national anthem protests, he failed . . . bigly. His remarks had the opposite effect with more players taking a knee for the anthem than ever before. The outcry and the action were to use one of the president’s favorite words — huge.
Trump’s (sad) comments on Friday night at a political rally for incumbent Alabama Senator Luther Strange, a Republican, in Huntsville, Ala., sparked a Sunday of civil disobedience around the NFL. Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ’’
Trump doubled down on those comments in a pair of tweets on Sunday morning, imploring fans to stop going to NFL games. “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!” he tweeted.
The NFL protested the policy and behavior of the president. Last time I checked some cross-section of Americans does that with every American president. And it wasn’t just the players who had a problem with Trump’s remarks. Owners across the league leaped to the defense of their players. Some such as Atlanta’s Arthur Blank and Jacksonville’s Shad Khan locked arms with players during the playing of the anthem. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair called Trump’s comments “divisive and counterproductive.”
One myth that needs to be dispelled immediately is that the NFL anthem protesters don’t like America. That what they’re doing is un-American. It’s just the opposite. They’re protesting because they love America and American values. They just want the country to provide and promote those values for all Americans. They’re pressing for that more perfect Union referenced in the Constitution.
As the late African-American author James Baldwin stated about racial inequalities in America, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”
It’s sophistry to argue that the people kneeling don’t respect and honor the troops, and aren’t patriotic. It’s an attempt to silence a legitimate exercise in democracy and a legitimate concern. Jordan Richards, one of the Patriots players who took a knee during the anthem, was vigorously clapping when the team honored military personnel who sit in the Row of Honor section at Gillette Stadium in the third quarter.
That’s right. Even Trump America’s Team, your New England Patriots, acted out against the president. Patriots owner Robert Kraft is close friends with Trump.
He contributed $1 million to his inauguration and gave Trump a Patriots Super Bowl ring. Patriots coach Bill Belichick wrote Trump a letter of support that he read at a New Hampshire rally before the election.
For the first time since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and currently unemployed NFL player Colin Kaepernick started the anthem protests in August of 2016 by sitting and then kneeling, there were Patriots players who knelt during the anthem.
Among a group of 16 Patriots who knelt for the anthem before Sunday’s game against the Texans were defensive captains Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty, and wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who caught the winning touchdown pass and whose father and an uncle served in the Marines.
In this bluest of blue states, that had many at Gillette Stadium seeing red. Fans booed during the anthem and some shouted, “Stand up!” Nobody minded Harmon taking a knee after he made the game-sealing interception in a wild 36-33 Patriots win. Shocker.
“We were obviously very conflicted. We knew that our message would be perceived in a way that wasn’t what we were trying to put out,” said McCourty, who went to the podium after the game wearing a T-shirt denouncing racism, fascism, sexism, and hate. “A lot of guys were all over the place about the comments by the president on Friday night . . . and they didn’t know what to do.
“We wanted to come together, and, first and foremost, we hate that people are going to see it as we don’t respect the military and the men and women that are way braver than us and go and put their life on the line every day for us to have the right to play football. We know that people are going to see it that way.
“Guys have family members, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters that serve. They were really conflicted about it. But we just wanted to send a message of unity and being together and not standing for the disrespect. It was unique to kind of see guys come together and bond together as a group before the game and do that.”
Apolitical Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had his hand over his heart and locked arms with wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, who is African-American. Brady dodged the meaning behind that gesture like an oncoming pass rusher with equivocal statements after the game. Belichick, who grew up in Annapolis, Md., home of the Naval Academy, said he would address the anthem action another time.
Kraft was compelled to join his fellow owners and commissioner Roger Goodell in repudiating Trump’s comments. Kraft broke from Trump after dissembling for him on “The Today Show” about why some Patriots didn’t want to go to the White House in February.
“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president on Friday,” said Kraft in a statement released on Sunday morning. “I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities. Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger . . . Our players are intelligent, thoughtful, and care deeply about our community, and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”
This is not new territory for our country or for sports. There was deep division about what defined patriotism during the Vietnam War, which sparked protests and incidents of not observing the flag. Vehement disagreement is part of a democratic society.
It’s understandable why those who have served in the military or as civil servants would take issue with players not standing for the anthem. Those brave men and women deserve to be appreciated and saluted.
But the anthem and the flag and the country they represent belong to all Americans. They’re symbols of the ideals and promises of this country, such as all men are created equally. These protests are about living up to those ideals of freedom and justice, so that they’re not just nationalistic lip-service.
Trump did the impossible. He made the behemoth, multibillion-dollar NFL the good guys. He united players and owners in solidarity about the state of their league. If only he could do that in the political arena.
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