Dawuane Smoot and the Subterranean Fire in the NFL

There has been a great deal of reaction following the NFL owners’ asinine decision to fine teams—who then would be expected to fine individual players—if they do not stand during the national anthem before games. Players are allowed to stay in the locker room and protest where no one can see them, but anyone who takes a knee or raises a fist or stays seated or even links arms during the anthem will get a taste of bosses’ justice.

Yet there is one response worth highlighting for a multitude of reasons: It’s important because it’s not from someone whose voice we have heard from before and it’s not from someone who has been identified as a leader in the players’ movement to raise awareness around police violence and racial inequity. It’s someone who only just finished his rookie year in the league and it’s from someone only hardcore NFL fans would even be able to identify as a player. His name is Dawuane “D.J.” Smoot, a defensive lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Playing in one of the more conservative markets in the NFL did not stop Smoot from having the following response to the rule change. Here is what he posted on social media:

Freedom of speech does not exist for NFL players now, we get fined for protesting for something we believe in, FINE ME!!!! You can’t change my opinion, and can’t stop my protest I have a right as an American to protest when I feel there is injustice in this country.

The quote holds an unintended echo of the speech by Haymarket Martyr and labor leader August Spies who led the fight for the eight-hour day over 130 years ago and was hung to death on trumped up charges of masterminding an anarchist bombing. Here is what Spies said,

If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery, the wage slaves, expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.

The echo is there not merely because Smoot is thundering “FINE US” the same way that Spies said, “Hang us!” It’s the shared understanding that this is a labor issue first and foremost. It’s both people attempting to answer the question of who is going to have power in the work place. Are workers just cogs of machinery? Are football players mere extensions of the equipment on the field? These are the questions—beyond the eight-hour day or police violence—that both struggles were and are attempting to answer. Or in the words of NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith on the anthem rule, “It smacks as more of a desire to exert control rather than a desire to stand up and support the rights and freedoms that our country was founded on.”

There is another strong similarity: In each case, we are talking about powerful entities attempting to stamp out something that is not going to stop, and they are in fact only making the issue more incendiary every time they try to stomp their foot on the flames of anger that exist.

The NFL clearly had two goals with its new “anthem policy.” One was to get Donald Trump to stop using the league as racist red meat for his base. That obviously failed, with his statement that players who stay in the locker room “maybe shouldn’t be in the country.” The second goal was to stop associating the league with protesting players and get the focus back on football. They could have accomplished this objective by merely reaffirming the old policy and saying that they support the rights of players to express themselves. This would then have been a news story for maybe 24 hours. With more players feeling like they were being heard, fewer would have been protesting at the start of the season.

Now, however, players are speaking about protesting during the anthem just to show owners who is really in charge. Now the number-one narrative at the start of the season will be, “How many players will stay in the locker room?,” “Who is going to defy the ban and get fined?,” and “How many teams will follow the lead of the New York Jets and pay the fines for players?” The problem with this cabal of unaccountable right-wing billionaires is that their desire to maintain a slipping grip on “their players,” to control their labor, clearly outweighed taking the sensible and smart path. Instead, they went with appeasing Trump and clamping down. Now they will pay the price for it, because there are many Dawuane Smoots in the NFL who are ready to keep this subterranean fire lit well into the 2018 season and beyond.

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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