Protesting NFL Players Aren’t Being Demonized Only by Trumpers

There is a cottage industry of political journalists whose take on the state of Trump-America is simply, “Don’t talk about racism or it will anger ‘Middle America’ and lead to Donald Trump’s reelection.” This political take has long had a safe haven in centrist politics. Their answer to why Nixon, then Reagan, then the Bushes, and now Trump were elected boils down to movement activists’ wanting too much, too soon. Activists are responsible for scaring the American “middle” into the arms of reactionaries. These journalists never diagnose their defeats as a result of their own politics’ failure to offer a compelling agenda. Instead, we get scapegoating to muzzle and control people who dare to offer a compelling message of change outside the control of smoky back rooms.

This toxic analysis is now being used to attack NFL players—people whom no one a year ago would have confused with “movement activists”—for protesting during the anthem.

In USA Today, an editorial writer named Robert Robb has already staked out the ground, as if racing to secure a patent on the position that if this president wins reelection in 2020, you can blame these NFL players. Forget that by 2020 Trump might be impeached, in prison, or in a large hollowed-out volcano holding the world ransom with a giant laser. Instead, three years in advance of the election, Robb wants to plant the idea that it will be the players’ fault.

To understand the mendacity required to make this argument, read this one tortuous sentence: “You don’t have to be a racist to find galling the spectacle of pampered athletics, making millions of dollars playing a game, hosted in taxpayer-subsidized stadiums, benefiting from an antitrust exemption, ostentatiously exempting themselves from the traditional display of fidelity to our country.”

Let’s start with the strawman bullshit. Find me one NFL player who has called those who disagree with the protests “racist.” What they have said time and again is that they want this country to confront structural racism in the criminal-justice system and policing. They are protesting during the anthem to speak about the gap between what the flag means and what it represents. We have certainly seen some of these players call online trolls racists. Is that OK? Should they get written approval from Robb before they come back on people who call them “n——-“? Or would that just shove “Middle America” into Trump’s arms?

Then there is this idea that they are ”pampered”—a little class bait to justify the racial animus. There is nothing “pampered” about what they are doing. These players are using their platform to raise the profile of a critical issue that has long been ignored. Far from being selfish or “pampered,” they are sacrificing anonymity, endorsements, and personal peace to be a voice for those whose voices are often marginalized or altogether silenced. They also have been subjected to racist hate speech and death threats. Robb also ignores that, while these men are professional athletes, many of them are also black men who have dealt with police violence or racial profiling in their own lives.

But that’s not the sum of the awful. It’s NFL owners, not players, who have been “pampered” by being allowed to fleece billions from the public through “taxpayer-subsidized stadiums.” These owners have also hired an army of DC lobbyists to make sure their antitrust exemptions hold. Some of us have been writing about this outrage for years. Yet Robb is suddenly waking up to this injustice because it’s a way to bash players for talking about racism. It reminds one of the way Pat Robertson can look at a 64-year-old white man who massacres 59 people at a country-music concert and somehow blame, as Robertson said, “disrespect now for our national anthem.” Watch Colin Kaepernick, before the year is out, get blamed for Hurricane Maria, gout, and the germs that cause bad breath.

Then there is this line from Robb: “What is bewildering is that the NFL and the left seem to believe that they are winning this fight with Trump. Let’s see. Honor the flag and the national anthem. Or not. Yep, Trump is certainly on the wrong side of that issue.”

That last line was meant to be sarcastic. It is also bereft of reality. Maybe people aren’t as stupid as Robb thinks. Maybe Robb should read the very newspaper, USA Today, that published his column. Its latest polls show that the players are in fact shifting public opinion. Maybe it’s because Trump did not say, as Robb writes, “Honor the flag and the national anthem;” He said that the “son of a bitch” players should be fired for exercising their rights. Maybe people know the difference. It’s incredibly dishonest journalism to rephrase Trump’s argument into something much more benign than his verbatim comments. It’s even worse to do so just to bash the people taking on the truth, not the fiction, of what he actually said.

The more you read, the more you see that this line of logic comes from the fact that Robb has no analysis of the right-wing extremism represented and emboldened by Trump. He writes, “There are small pockets of white supremacists in the United States. They are unimportant.” Lord, if only that were the case. Their lack of importance would be news to not only the victims of their violence but also those struck by the fear that spreads after it happens. I live 15 minutes from where an alt-reich goon killed Lt. Richard Collins III. It was tragic for the Collins family. The ripple effect of fear and agony was similarly awful. I think we can say the same of Charlottesville, Portland, and Kansas, and all the places that have felt the dramatic rise in hate crimes since Trump took office.

But it’s the last part that gives the game away. Robb writes, “Generally speaking, white Middle Americans aren’t racists. They don’t long for a return to Jim Crow. They’re just sick of having identity and grievance politics thrown in their faces all the time. If the left continues to tell Middle Americans they are racists, Trump will be re-elected.”

Again no one—repeat no one—is arguing that “Middle Americans’—by which he means white people—are racist or that they want a return to Jim Crow. These players are trying to raise the issue of very real families’ being destroyed by mass incarceration and police violence: those little things that have destroyed thousands of lives and what Robb calls “grievance politics.” I know that one of the reasons Michael Bennett of the Seahawks is sitting during the anthem is because a Seattle resident named Charleena Lyles was killed by police. She called the police herself, concerned about an intruder, and was shot down in cold blood in front of three of her four children. Charleena Lyles was also pregnant. Seven bullets, four in her back. If being outraged about that is just “grievance politics” to Robb and the Democratic party, then they deserve to lose to Donald Trump, and we need a new party to wage the political fights being imposed by the brutal realities of this country.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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