Trump spurs athletes to action

On Sunday, players for teams throughout the NFL took a knee during the National Anthem or otherwise showed their disdain for Donald Trump's bigoted and ignorant remarks about protesting athletes and the game of football. In his column for TheNation.com, Dave Zirin dissects Trump's comments to reveal just how divisive and narcissistic he is.

Members of the Baltimore Ravens kneel in protest during the National AnthemMembers of the Baltimore Ravens kneel in protest during the National Anthem

IT'S EXHAUSTING to have a president who gets angrier at outspoken Black athletes than at Nazis. It's exhausting how shameless he is about his bigotry and his toxicity. This is a president who never played football. He never served in the armed forces. He frets over what conclusions we draw from the size of his hands. His skin is thinner than the gossamer wings of a butterfly. He is the epitome of a bullying but frail brand of masculinity. He belongs in a psychological textbook as a case study, not in the White House. Look at Trump's comments--in their entirety--about the current state of the National Football League, from his speech at a campaign rally in Huntsville, 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!" You know, some owner is gonna do that. He's gonna say, "That guy disrespects our flag; he's fired." And that owner, they don't know it. They don't know it. They're friends of mine, many of them. They don't know it. They'll be the most popular person, for a week. They'll be the most popular person in this country.

Then, the very week that the autopsy of 27-year-old former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez went public, which found he had stage three Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, Trump claimed that the game was too soft. He said:

Today if you hit too hard--15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television--his wife is sitting at home, she's so proud of him. They're ruining the game! They're ruining the game. That's what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.

This is Trump, the violent fantasist who dreams of a physical supremacy he never achieved, and has then spent his life expressing this insecurity and hostility through boardroom bullying and, of course, sexually predatory behavior. He has lived his life in thrall to toxic masculinity, but lacked the ability to prove this "manhood" on the football field, and then dodged the armed forces, never attempting to prove his "manhood" on the battlefield. He has chosen instead to spend a lifetime tearing down the people who have dared stand in his path, and the women who dared to say "no." Call it irony, call it divine coincidence, but it's stunning that the day Trump publicly yearns for the time when football fulfilled his vicarious desires of physical domination, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on September 22 scrapped a key part of government policy on campus sexual assault. It's so on the nose, a screenwriter would reject the scenario.

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BUT TRUMP'S speech wasn't over. His radar, always firmly attuned to the worst impulses of his audience, turned his attention again back to Black players who protest, and he said:

But do you know what's hurting the game more than that? When people like yourselves turn on the television and you see those players taking the knee when they're playing our great national anthem. The only thing you could do better is, if you see it, even if it's one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway.

SOME COULD argue that this is just a case of a divisive autocrat going after obvious targets of racial animus and of a base that doesn't care if nuclear Armageddon looms, as long as they get their culture war--while Trump's party gets its tax cuts for billionaires. But whether Trump realizes it or not, there is something else at play. These athletes are doing a lot more than sitting or kneeling or raising a fist during the anthem. They are offering up an alternative model for unity, justice and even manhood. They are showing that what makes an adult is whom you can help, not whom you can cuss, and certainly not whom you can destroy for shameless and divisive political gain. Look at the work that's been done by Michael Bennett, Colin Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins, the Charlottesville scholarships just funded by Chris Long...the list goes on and on of NFL players attempting to use their platform to highlight a different path for healing this country. The anthem protest is just a means to that end, an effort to highlight the gap between the promises that the flag represents and the lived experience of too many people in this country.

This is a model of politics--as well as manhood--that threatens Trump's entire agenda of poisonous, divisive narcissism. Look at the outpouring of comments by NFL players following Trump's remarks. None of them have sunk to his level. Instead, they share the tone of Seahawk Richard Sherman who said, "The behavior of the President is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. If you do not Condemn this divisive Rhetoric you are Condoning it!!" The cornerback, who is not even 30 years old, is showcasing more adulthood then the 70-year-old president. This is the new reality. And Sherman is absolutely correct. To be silent in the face of this destructive person is to condone his actions. That's not an option. This president is a child bully, and bullies are emboldened by our silence.

First published at TheNation.com.