When it comes to the recent spate of NFL protests, it has been a long road to reaching a point where all sides are blameworthy. The fracas was kicked off just over a year ago when, in the twilight of his career, 49’ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee during the national anthem. Following his refusal to stand for in two preseason games, fans and the media began took notice.
Kaepernick then gave an exclusive interview to NFL media in which he explained the reason for his protest: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
“To me,” Kaepernick continued, “this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
What followed was a firestorm of controversy, virtually all of it focusing on Kaepernick’s method of protest – which was abjectly unpatriotic – instead of his claimed message, which was to condemn institutional racism and high-profile police shootings of racial minorities.
Rather than saying “I love America, but America can do better,” Kaepernick had taken a proverbial dump in America’s Wheaties. Understandably, many people tended to ignore anything else he had to say.
Worse, Kaepernick quickly proved himself a hypocrite. Shortly after starting his protest, he appeared at a press conference wearing a Malcolm X baseball cap and a t-shirt emblazoned with photographs of a 1960 meeting between Malcolm X and Fidel Castro above the words: “Like minds think alike.” It was a clear indication of support for the Cuban dictator.
However, instead of apologizing and recanting, Kapernick subsequently offered nothing but praise of Castro after being grilled on the issue by a Miami Herald reporter (although later he meekly clarified that he did not support “the oppressive things [Castro] did”).
Thus, within short order Kaepernick conveyed that he was not willing to express muted pride in America because of racism and police misconduct, but he was entirely willing to heap public praise on totalitarian dictator and mass murderer Fidel Castro. Tone deaf doesn’t begin to describe it.
Unfortunately, the issue didn’t go away. Other NFL players began emulating Kaepernick, particularly after he became a free agent but couldn’t find a job – something that many attributed, at least partially, to the fact that Kaepernick had made himself a political hot potato.
The controversy was still simmering this past Friday when President Trump decided to enter the fray with some incendiary words at the Wernher Von Braun Center in Alabama: “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’s words, while perhaps acceptable on talk radio in the context of a private rant, were profane, inappropriate, immature, and unworthy of a sitting president. They were also counterproductive insofar as they simply drew more attention to the antics of Kaepernick and his imitators while pushing Trump’s critics (especially partisan Democrats) to openly defend them.
The aftermath of Trump’s comments were predictable. They were condemned by the NFL, which didn’t appreciate being pressured to ban players over political speech by the president. The same sentiment was echoed by many players and team owners.
Among the public, reactions tended to go down political lines. Many liberals, rightly angered by Trump’s uncouth and undiplomatic rant, called out Trump for using his position as president to pressure the NFL to fire players who were exercising their constitutional right to free speech. Many conservatives, still rightly annoyed that a narcissistic hypocrite like Kaepernick was being crassly depicted as some modern day Rosa Parks, backed Trump’s coarse call for the NFL to control its players’ conduct on the field and doubled-down on threats to boycott professional football.
Then on Sunday, chaos ensued. Players across the NFL sat or kneeled during the national anthem, either in solidarity with Kaepernick, or to protest Trump’s comments. Some teams, like the Houston Texans, stood unified for the anthem. Others, like the Oakland Raiders, kneeled in unison.
The New Orleans Saints were divided, with some players standing for the pledge on the sideline and others sitting on the bench behind or standing alongside in unity with the protest.
There was no way to avoid the controversy. Players for the Pittsburgh Steelers were ordered to stay in the locker room for the duration of the national anthem to prevent any protests from occurring. The plan didn’t work, as Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, former Army Captain, Ranger, and veteran of the Afghan War, stood with his hand over his heart. Villanueva, who had previously criticized Kaepernick, was now the odd man out.
This is now where matters stand, with a simple sport needlessly feeding political divisions. Kaepernick exploited the protests to feed his own celebrity and generate some undeserved legacy for himself. Trump is now using the controversial protest to foment division and fire up the base.
The honest truth is that we do need better accountability for police and stricter policies on the use of force, and that the consequences of police misconduct – which routinely goes unpunished – does fall disproportionately on racial minorities. Reform is desperately needed. Kaepernick is correct on that score, but the ham-fisted, offensive protests that he has instigated have merely connected his ideas to a lack of patriotism.
I genuinely believe there is common ground to be found regarding these issues, that we could find ways to improve policing and restore trust between law enforcement and minority communities. Alas, as long as Kaepernick and Trump stay in the limelight, the chances of any headway being made are slim. That, I believe, is the most regrettable aspect of all of this.
Owen M. Courrèges is an attorney living in New Orleans. He has previously written for Uptown Messenger, the Reason Public Policy Foundation, and The Lone Star Times.