This past week, President Trump spoke and tweeted about several of America’s most prominent professional athletes’ political stances. Taking aim at the Golden State Warriors and the entire NFL, Trump made clear that he will continue to be a vocal president on most anything that arises in the country, including sports.
On September 23, President Trump tweeted that he was rescinding his invitation to the White House for the NBA-champion Golden State Warriors, citing hesitation on behalf of Steph Curry. The team had been in talks with White House representatives to work out an agreement on their visit shortly before the statement was released. Over the past several months, players on the Warriors, including Curry, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, along with Head Coach Steve Kerr, have spoken openly about their dislike for the president and how they would likely not attend the White House if the team were to go.
The history of championship teams meeting the president dates back to 1924, when Calvin Coolidge hosted the World Series champion Washington Senators. However, the tradition as it is seen today, where almost every major champion, both collegiate and professional, are honored at the White House did not begin until the Reagan administration. So, despite the feeling of shock that comes with a team refusing the invitation, the trip is not as engrained in the office as one might think.
The statement that gained more traction, however, was Trump’s comment on NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem. Last Friday, September 22, at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, Trump looked at his audience and said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of those NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field. He is fired. He’s fired!’” This was met with resounding applause.
These words gained traction throughout the sports world and beyond, earning responses from many different athletes and commentators. The reaction from within the NFL community was immense. Many current players came to the defense of their teammates and coworkers. Some had already been a part of the protests, while others are now taking a knee to defend the rights of their contemporaries to speak their mind, without fear of losing their job or being attacked and ridiculed for their speech. Most teams’ ownership issued statements denouncing the president’s comments, claiming that a league as diverse as theirs would not stand for such divisive rhetoric. Several of these owners, including Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, Shad Khan of the Jaguars, and Arthur Blank of the Falcons, joined their players on the sideline, either on their knee or with their arms locked together.
It is worth noting, however, that this new support for the cause came only after the league and its players were singled out. When it was simply an issue of one or a few men kneeling, many around the league refused to comment or spoke negatively of it. However, now that the attention has been turned to the league as a whole – many fans have claimed that they are going to boycott the league if these protests continue – those who were previously disinterested have now jumped into action to defend the league.
The saga of the knee has been carrying on for over a year now, ever since former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, kneeled for the National Anthem during a preseason game in 2016. He did so to bring attention to police brutality against African Americans. Teammate Eric Reid and other members of the league soon joined him in his act, including Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, and the silent protest garnered national attention.
Some saw it in the terms that Kaepernick had used, that he was simply trying to bring attention to this abhorrent and uncomfortable issue. For others, however, it was disrespectful to members of the military. Many see the National Anthem ceremony as platform to show respect and gratitude for the sacrifice of the United States’ Armed Forces. Kaepernick never once said anything about protesting the military or the country, yet some believed that was what he was doing.
The debate around the knee has become one of the biggest stories in the country, and adds to the long list of intersections between sports and politics. Despite what some may say about sports being an escape from the political world, the two have long been connected. Stars such as Jackie Robinson and Muhammed Ali were major political activists in their time, and many athletes, including Ted Williams and Pat Tillman, have given up large portions of their careers or, in Tillman’s case, his life, to serve in combat.
Often, professional athletes are told to “stick to sports” and not express opinions or beliefs, especially on the political spectrum. Many, but not all, are African Americans. This happens to competitors on both sides of the political spectrum – we expect them entertain and not speak. However, it is unfair of us to look at grown American men and women, of any background, and tell them that their occupation prohibits them from speaking up for what they believe in.
We may not all agree on certain issues, and we may find that one’s form of protest is disrespectful to someone else. However, it is important to work through these differences to better understand each other. It is not okay, however, to claim someone should be fired for sticking up for what they believe in. Neither is it okay to tell someone that their occupation or position in society prevents them from sharing their views. What would have happened, say, if Jackie Robinson had been told to stick to sports? As Americans, we are free to speak and express ourselves peacefully, and it would be tough to argue that what Kaepernick and the NFL players, coaches, and owners have done is anything but that.