As it becomes clear that almost no one on either side of the NFL national anthem protest is going to change his or her mind about its merit or shame, maybe historical perspective can help.
First off, this is a racial protest followed by a racial backlash, regardless of how anyone wants to couch it. Our president can use the term “son of a bitch” to describe protesters, but it’s clear he means the black athletes. White players have joined in to show solidarity with their teammates by locking arms or placing a hand on another player’s shoulder, but the protest was started by black quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 as an outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the racial purpose is certain and real.
If Trump really meant “Fire him!” of anybody involved, one wonders if he’d like to see Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Tom Brady dumped from the NFL. Each locked arms with teammates or stayed in the locker room when the anthem was played Sunday.
Trump later found a wormhole of righteousness when he tweeted the distinction: “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”
Basically, white guys, good. Black guys, bad. And ratings über alles.
It’s worthwhile to note that tremendously successful white NBA coach Gregg Popovich has declared his loathing of Trump’s judgment. And NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a hugely controversial move in the conservative, largely white world of auto racing when he threw in with the protesters, tweeting a quote by John F. Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Earnhardt has been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver a record 14 times. He’s retiring soon, but it’s doubtful he’d win that award again if he stuck around.
It’s easy to see why these protests — silent and non-threatening though they may be — seem like personal affronts to those who view patriotism as something intertwined with allegiance to all the symbols and rituals of our nation. Many members of the military and law enforcement feel disrespected, even betrayed.
They have a point. But so do those who are — or truly believe they are — oppressed and demand to be taken seriously. That now includes those who once were neutral but now feel our president has turned the tide.
Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews, for example. Matthews grew up in a military family — his father served for 23 years; his brother died while on duty in Afghanistan — so he knows both sides. But he now intends to kneel before games.
“I’m tired of hearing, ‘Stick to sports,’ ” he said Sunday. “It comes down to right and wrong in this world. If you see wrong and don’t do anything, that’s wrong. As minorities, what do you want to happen before we say anything?”
Objectors would say do your protest somewhere else, at some other time.
We’ve seen this dispute before. Many times. Flag burnings, sit-ins, building takeovers, protests that tore at our fabric.
Let’s go back to 1996 and a game between the Bulls and Nuggets at the United Center. Michael Jordan and his mighty mates ruled the global hardwood, but it was frail Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson) who stole the media spotlight that night.
Abdul-Rauf had refused to stand for the national anthem at previous games, saying his Muslim beliefs wouldn’t let him. The NBA suspended him, and he lost $31,000 in pay. He came back before the Bulls game, saying he would stand but would bow his head in prayer.
Abdul-Rauf was listed at 6-1, 162 pounds. “No way,” Nuggets spokesman Tommy Shepherd told me. “He weighs 150.” And he sure wasn’t 6-1.
A sufferer of Tourette syndrome, a humiliating condition that caused him to twitch and even make barking sounds uncontrollably, Abdul-Rauf had been doing his anthem protest all season without notice, in the dark of the Nuggets’ arena, until a newsman found out.
At the UC, a rabid fan waved an American flag behind Abdul-Rauf, and other haters barked at him like dogs. The little man stood still, as still as he could, praying, and then the game started.
And here we are, once again. It’s the price, let’s propose, of freedom.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.