Solidarity Sundays in the NFL

Donald Trump's rant against NFL players following the example of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and taking a knee during the national anthem has caused an outright revolt--in a setting that might seem like the least likeliest of places.

Kaepernick began taking a knee before games in August 2016, a month after the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, to protest police brutality and racism. He continued his protest even after NFL owners blackballed him from playing. But what was confined to a small group of players before Trump opened his mouth spread throughout pro football and across the country to other sports and other teams.

Here, writers Dave Zirin and Rory Fanning talk to Elizabeth Schulte about the roots of the protests and what will happen next. Zirin is a sports columnist for TheNation.com, host of the podcast Edge of Sports and author of numerous books, including Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy and The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World. Fanning is a former Army Ranger and war resister who served with Pat Tillman, the NFL player killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan--Fanning's book Worth Fighting For chronicled his cross-country walk to raise awareness about Tillman. He also worked with former Chicago Bulls basketball player and activist Craig Hodges on his book Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter.

Members of the Dallas Cowboys take a knee during the national anthemMembers of the Dallas Cowboys take a knee during the national anthem

THERE'S BEEN a kind of avalanche of athletes, not just in the NFL, going out and taking a knee during the national anthem against police brutality and racism. I've seen high school athletes, cheerleaders and it's spreading like wildfire. Could you talk about what's fueling this outpouring of protest?

Dave: I think we've got to remember that before Trump's Huntsville, Alabama, speech, we're talking about nine players consistently taking part in the protest. These are very brave athletes, attempting to keep the kind of embers alive from Colin Kaepernick and company from last year.

They were also, based on my discussions with them, inspired to act by the horrors of Charlottesville and the racism of this administration. So all of that factored together to make them say, we can't let this end with Colin Kaepernick being blackballed from the league. And no doubt the blackballing of Kaepernick was something that pushed players to speak out as well.

So, that is the reality of the situation: A little-commented-upon group of NFL players who were attempting to be active during the anthem. And then, Donald Trump, as he does, poured gasoline all over it.

Because this is what Donald Trump does. He's a racist who demonizes people, and he does it to distract from a flailing and failing agenda. Why did Donald Trump make these comments about the NFL protests on that day? Why not a week earlier, why not two weeks earlier?

Well, it's because his effort to repeal health care fell apart, the candidate he was backing in Alabama was losing, the efforts to help Puerto Rico were a deadly disaster, Tom Price was about to resign as secretary of Health and Human Services. It's a train wreck of an administration.

So he can't offer anything to his base except more racism, and he thought he found the perfect target in NFL players. But one of the things he did not expect was the outpouring of solidarity that took place among NFL players.

And a combination of this outpouring of solidarity, coupled with the fact that Trump himself is such a poisonous figure, has meant that we've seen a massive shift in the polling numbers in terms of people supporting these players. From a majority saying that it was inappropriate to demonstrate during the anthem, to now over half the country saying it's appropriate and 84 percent of the country saying they have the right to do it.

All these polls came out today, from USA Today and another pollster called Seton Hall Sports. I was writing about it today, and it was so gratifying to see that shift. And the roots of that shift really are because Donald Trump himself is so toxic and so racist that when he speaks out, people don't want to be on his side.

I'll just end with this. The task for us is to make sure that these protests don't get off-track. These protests cannot and should not be about Donald Trump. They need to retain their original focus, which is about racism, police brutality and inequities in the criminal justice system.

I WANT to ask Rory, who's a veteran who has sat down for Kaepernick, about that too. What do you say about that--keeping that message on message?

Rory: Yeah, I think the key point is not to forget the names of the victims, the Terence Crutchers, the Eric Garners, the Rekia Boyds, the Laquan McDonalds, the more than 1,100 people who are killed by police every single year, which far surpasses nearly every country in the world and disproportionately targets people of color.

To say nothing of the mass incarceration epidemic in this country as well. Some 2.2 million people in jail is certainly not the "land of the free."

So I can certainly understand, and I place myself in this category, as being someone who would have a hard time putting their hand over their heart saying "land of the free" in a country that's clearly not for so many people.

Dave: One of the reasons why it's so important to focus these protests on their original issue--racial inequities in the criminal justice system--is precisely because of what Rory just said.

This is not a debate about the anthem, and this is not a debate about who's the bigger patriot, and this is not a debate about who supports the military. I think that's the debate that NFL owners want to have with Donald Trump. They want it to be this idea, that abstract mush notion of solidarity, without saying solidarity with what or solidarity with who.

So for that one week, we had a spectacle that in my opinion careened from incredibly inspiring to kind of gross. Inspiring to see this historic visual of roughly 180 people--NFL players and coaches--involved in some sort of a protest in response to a profane and vindictive president. I mean that's amazing.

But then when you see them link arms with NFL owners, the very people blackballing Colin Kaepernick, that's kind of disgusting--that's perverse, even. To say we're linking arms with these very people, these very forces--in addition to those being the very forces that they're going to have to be locked across the table with in a real contract fight coming up very soon.

And there's something about this, the broader unity, which does not serve the interests of either NFL players, Colin Kaepernick, or the Movement for Black Lives. The ownership unity question--that does not help. You can't have an owner of a team called the Redskins be allowed to pose like he's against racism.

You don't build a movement that way. So I'm actually glad that we've moved on from last week and that this week's protests were smaller, but smaller in a welcome way, because they were still much, much bigger than they were a couple of weeks ago, but these are the players who are in it for the movement. And when you have players who are in it for the movement, that means they're the ones who are going to be asked questions afterward by the media, they're the ones who are going to be able to articulate the reasons for it.

And then we don't have this ridiculous debate about who supports the military. One other thing that bothers me about this is, my god, how many vets have to stand up and say "I support Kaepernick" before these right-wing echo-bots stop saying military this, military that? Right-wingers have used pictures of disabled vets to say, "This is someone who can't stand for the anthem"--and these very vets have come forward to say stop using my picture, I support what they're doing. And still, they don't take these pictures down.

I think people have to get attuned to just how unprincipled our opposition is in this. This is not a case where we're going to be able to reach across the aisle and come up with some kind of common ground on this, because they're in it for blood and they don't care about us, or any of the people being killed, or even about the vets that they exploit to make their point.

So I think we have to be really tough in being clear about what we're fighting for and say without apology that this is not about Donald Trump; this is about Tamir Rice. The more we talk about Donald Trump, the more we do our movement a disservice.

Rory: Just to dovetail on that, Colin Kaepernick basically lost his career by going out there and putting it all on the line for this protest. He's made incredible sacrifice for this cause to push back against mass incarceration and police brutality.

To me, he has way more in common with people who thought they had fought for freedom, and not just soldiers, I'm talking labor organizers and anti-racist activists and reporters, etc.--people who actually go out there and sacrifice for the truth and push back against attempts to take people's rights away from them.

I think if we are going to go down that road to say that it's disrespecting veterans, I think we have to say that Colin Kaepernick has way more in common with people who have actually sacrificed and put something on the line for a cause bigger than their own self-interests.

ON THE subject of Black athletes standing up and fighting. What do you say to the people who say they are "celebrities" that can do whatever they want. I've even heard people say, "I don't have rights on my job, so how are they allowed to have a right to free speech in their job," which is the most ridiculous sort of expression of that. There is a risk that's taken. Rory, you worked with Craig Hodges on his book where he describes some of the risks he had to take and the backlash he faced in order to take a stand. Could you say something about that?

Rory: Yeah, Craig Hodges lost everything trying to fight racism and economic inequality in the NBA. No one was there to catch him when he fell. There's incredible risk. I know there were death threats made on Craig and I'm sure there's tons of stuff that Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett have received since then.

To say nothing of the daily realities of being a Black man in America. Michael Bennett had a gun pointed to his head by the police in Las Vegas just recently. So the idea that these guys are immune from any loss or damage is disconnected from reality. And Dave brings it up all the time, when people ask, "I'm not allowed to protest on my job." Well, you have to ask yourself why that's not the case in the first place.

Dave: The first thing I would add to people who say "I can't protest on my job" is "Do you have to say the national anthem at your job?" I mean, that's not a typical job requirement at all.

Second, the Supreme Court has also litigated this. In a public school for example, you cannot be forced to stand for the national anthem. So the public schools that are saying they are going to keep players off the team are already in violation of the law just by saying that. And they know that too.

So we know what's really going on when they issue that threat--it's about silencing voices of resistance and anti-racist voices. And it's about attacking young people as they enter and involve themselves in what is definitely, I would argue, a generational or youth revolt against police violence and police brutality and racism.

About the NFL, people talk about this like it's this age-old tradition that goes back to people wearing monocles and sipping mint juleps on the porch or something--you stand for the anthem before games. And it goes back to 2009 for goodness' sake, when football players were not in the locker room for the anthem--2009, and you can't even argue that it came out of 9/11, like so much sports patriotism did, because that's almost eight years after 9/11.

It came out of a commercial partnership between the Department of Defense and the National Football League, so it's so funny to me when they talk about people like Colin Kaepernick or Michael Bennett somehow profaning the anthem when the NFL amps up the anthem for monetary benefit. They have turned this into part of their profit motive. So who the hell are they to criticize anybody about how the anthem is used?

Rory: Well, 2009 is also a point where morale in the war on Iraq was at an all-time low. And in an all-volunteer army, places like the NFL are kind of a sweet spot as far as targeted recruiting.

So, people say it's not about the military, but I think you have to eventually make the connection to the military in the sense that the rank-and-file police departments are filled with veterans, most of whom have never seen combat and are insecure about that, and they're trigger happy, and they're also trained in the military to be racist.

You can't kill another human being unless you are mentally damaged or a racist, or able to see someone as less than or an other, and I think that easily transfers into police departments. So I also don't think it's a coincidence that 2009 is the time that they wanted to bring the military and the forced patriotism into the NFL because you've got to keep those 800 military bases around the world stocked with fresh bodies. I think that's part of the discussion.

Dave: I would just throw out one thing too, because I don't want any readers to misinterpret what I'm saying here. I'm in no way saying it's illegitimate if players wanted to protest the anthem or wanted to protest the actions of our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, or wanted to protest serious issues in the military with racism, with sexual assault.

The military is rife with injustice and the actions of the military are rife with injustice and this anthem, as has been remarked upon endlessly, has a verse that we do not sing precisely because it's racist. So this anthem is not this pure thing either. And if people wanted to protest that's completely legit.

Just to bring it back to police violence, that's why people were protesting. I think it's so important that we let the people who are protesting and putting it on the line be the voice for why they're protesting. And also understand the foul dirty tricks that are at play when there's an effort to refocus, to reframe what they're doing, as a way to isolate and demonize them.

THIS ISN'T the first time that the anthem has been a vehicle for protest for Black athletes. Could you talk about?

Dave: I'll speak briefly about it. Jackie Robinson was hailed not only as a hero, but as a Republican hero, even though he left the Republican Party before he died. He said in his amazing memoir I Never Had It Made that he didn't stand for the anthem because he's a Black man in a white man's country. That's Jackie Robinson talking.

And then you've got people like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who wouldn't come out for the anthem, and that was very explicitly because he was concerned about that flag being a symbol of oppression and tyranny throughout the world. So Rauf had a global perspective, like we were talking about before, for why he didn't go out there.

This was pre-9/11, pre-war on terror, this was like 1990s, sanctions in Iraq, humanitarian intervention--no shortage of reasons to protest, but it just didn't get nearly the attention, particularly by traditional forces on the liberal left, and here's Rauf standing out there doing it.

But of course the most famous anthem protest in history is John Carlos and Tommie Smith. I mean that's the marker by which everyone aspires to in terms of reach and impact and that was during the playing of the anthem at the 1968 Olympics on "foreign soil" in Mexico.

And that's why John Carlos was just on CNN defending these players and calling out Donald Trump in absolutely withering terms, people should watch it. Because John Carlos feels such an organic connection to what's happening right now.

And that's why former NBA player Etan Thomas calls it the blessing and burden of being a Black athlete. I mean the burden is that it can never just be about sports like it can be for your white teammates, because something happens to one Black player, there's that essentialism and collectivizing the guilt about it. For example, they all get asked, "What do you think about dog fighting?" after Michael Vick.

But at the same time, there's the blessing because it connects you to this tradition and this history. And I think what Michael Bennett wants to see is for white athletes to access that history, so they can stand in solidarity with their Black teammates and feel like they're a part of that because that kind of multiracial struggle is desperately needed at this stage.

IN A lot of ways, this is one of those moments where people are picking sides. People are talking about this at their dinner tables and their workplaces because the athletes have stood up. Can both of you say something about this particular moment--how people are having these debates out?

Rory: It's a blessing and a curse. You certainly don't want to be put in this position because you have an insane president or because you have 2.5 million people in jail or 1,200 police murders every single year.

The country is divided in so many ways, the president is a master at tearing things apart and we've all felt that in one way or another, and it's sad but it's also nice to see that there are so many people out there that are standing up and pushing back against the current system.

Dave: I have no problems with divisions, because when these divisions become real, what also becomes real is the fact that these divisions are there, whether there's protest or not--divisions like class, race, gender, sexuality. There are also divisions on the basis of whether you fight and believe in principles of social justice and economic justice, or are you on the side of reaction. So, those divisions exist independently of these football players.

I think the issue with Trump is that he often divides things on terms that are beneficial to him and beneficial to the growing far-right in this country. And our fight is not to fight the divisions, but to make sure the lines are divided in ways that are beneficial to us. Trump is trying to divide people on the basis of who is or is not a patriot, who does or does not care about this country. That's the divisions that help him.

The divisions that help us are if we say, "Which side are you on? This racist or not." The people who say, "I don't like that the president's a racist"--that's who's on our side. And people who say, "Well, actually, I don't mind that the president's a racist"--that's not somebody we need to be talking to.

We want to ask, "Do we stand with people who fight police brutality or not?" If Donald Trump wants to foster division, let's divide it up and have the fight. But we're not going to be divided the way he wants us to be divided, because he wants us at each other's throats while he passes a $3 trillion tax cut. We want to be able to stand together to fight for a better world.

Transcription by Rebecca Anshell Song.