If there is one group that Trump must have thought would always be in his corner, it must be the National Football League. It is essentially a cartel consisting of 32 multimillionaire or billionaire owners of teams, some of whom are personal friends of his, who have no scruples about squeezing money for luxury stadiums and tax breaks from revenue-starved cities by threatening to move their teams elsewhere if they are not bought off. These owners are also almost all white and the football players, who are their employees, are largely black and the idea of white people in charge of black people must appeal to Trump and his fellow racists. Furthermore, the violence in football would appeal to soft, wimpy, bullies like Trump who can pretend to be tough by identifying with the players.
Trump has used the NFL to pursue his goal of using patriotism to serve his own ends, most notably when he lambasted Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem before games to draw attention to the injustices in society. Trump went nuts, castigating Kaepernick as unpatriotic because he was disrespecting the flag and demanding of the NFL that any player who did so should be fired. Of course, this patriotic phony-baloney was lapped up by Trump’s rabid base who identify with the macho culture of football. The NFL agreed with Trump and, by forcing Kepernick out of football with no owner willing to hire him even as a backup quarterback, managed to intimidate players who might have thought off following Kaepernick’s lead.
That elder statesman of sports, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, has a typically thoughtful essay on what Kaepernick represented, written five months ago, before the current events.
Neither the focus on [Kaepernick’s] tweet nor the NFL pretense of his tryout are really about Colin Kaepernick, the man or the player. They are about all the other athletes who conservatives are trying to preemptively silence. NBA superstars like LeBron James and Steph Curry are impervious to this kind of treatment, in part because the NBA didn’t campaign to blackball them. Fox News, Breitbart, and the other mouthpieces of entitlement and walling-off-the-truth can’t touch them. But other players, especially young ones working their way up through the ranks, may be stifled by the example of Kaepernick left to twist in the wind of no-change.
But things have changed. It started with star quarterback for the New Orleans Saints Drew Brees. He had earlier agreed with Trump that kneeling was disrespecting the flag and unctuously brought up his two grandfathers who served in World War II to justify his stance. He claimed that he would never agree to the kneeling protests. Then this week, in the midst of the protests, he thought it was a good idea to repeat that sentiment. When asked about the prospect of players kneeling in the upcoming season to protest police brutality and other injustices, he said he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States.”
The reaction was swift from fellow professional sports stars who could not believe that at this time when the issue of injustices against black people is front and center, Brees would think that this was a good moment to bring up that issue. It is like people who during this time of mass turmoil say, “Yes, but what about the problem of Bernie bros?” One can only marvel at the tone deafness. As a result of the backlash, Brees had to issue a groveling apology and say that he was wrong earlier and was now endorsing the protests. This has of course enraged some of his fans, who accuse him of being a coward who was bullied into reversing course.
Then we had an even more startling reversal from Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, who works for the team owners. He was given a set of demands by NFL players that asked him to apologize for the NFL’s past attitude towards player protests. The next day Goodell issued a video statement that said what he had been demanded to say. a stunning reversal by the NFL.
Here is Goodell’s video statement
We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter. #InspireChange pic.twitter.com/ENWQP8A0sv
— NFL (@NFL) June 5, 2020
Goodell had to have cleared this statement with his bosses, the team owners. I do not for a minute believe this represents a change of heart by Goodell or the owners. What is does represent is that they have recognized that the tide is against them and that they had better change course quickly or be swept aside and lose the money-making enterprise they own. Another indicator of how money concerns are fueling change is how Michael Jordan, who seemed to only care about building up his personal fortune and had previously ignored calls to use his considerable fame in support of social justice causes, has now issued his own statement of support for the protests.
It is interesting to hear Goodell say that the NFL was wrong in condemning the earlier protests and is now calling upon people to protest peacefully. He does not seem to understand the nature of protests. After you ignore people and even punish those who protested peacefully, you cannot, after the protests turn violent, then tell them that they should go back to doing what they did before which you had ignored and suppressed. That is not how protests work. You cannot turn back the tide that is sweeping you away.
Trump is of course enraged by what he considers betrayals by Brees and the NFL.
After the NFL announced its U-turn, Trump tweeted late on Friday night: “We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart. There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag – NO KNEELING!”
I am a big fan of Drew Brees. I think he’s truly one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag. OLD GLORY is to be revered, cherished, and flown high…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2020
Trump is being increasingly reduced to looking impotent. He has clearly lost this particular culture war. Players are going to kneel before games in the future and the NFL is not going to do anything about it. What I would also like to see is Kaepernick being brought back into the NFL
The Onion has an explanation for Brees’s earlier stance towards black players kneeling during the anthem.
In response to controversy over his previous statement that downplayed police brutality and focused on standing for the national anthem, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees admitted Thursday that he hasn’t trusted black people ever since a Falcons linebacker stole a football straight out of his hands. “I understand that people might be angry with me, but I have to speak from my own experience, which is that in 2009, a large black man came out of nowhere, shoved me, and stripped my football directly out of my hands,” said Brees, adding that the man who took his football was accompanied by “at least four or five other large black men” who were all wearing red and black, which he took to be gang colors. “Can you really blame me if I view black men suspiciously since that terrible day? I worked hard all my life to get that ball, and that large black linebacker—or maybe he was even a defensive end—ripped it out of my hands and just ran away. Meanwhile, I got shoved to the ground and not only did no one intervene, but the other black men around him started cheering. Where the heck was law enforcement? I could’ve been killed. It was just clear they have no respect for me, the grandson of World War II veterans. Honestly, since then I’ve been afraid to even leave the pocket.” Brees added that if the country was going to have a conversation about police brutality, it also needed to address the anti-white organizations that paid large black men huge sums of money to attack innocent quarterbacks like himself.