I quit watching the NFL about 20 years ago. I haven’t missed it a day since. But I still read the local newspaper.
And so it was impossible to miss the color photographs in a recent edition. They were splashed across the front page above the fold – rows of uniformed professional football players in pads, standing arm in arm with glum expressions on their faces, as the national anthem played before their Sunday games. Some players knelt. One club owner, the Jacksonville Jaguar’s Shahid Khan, joined his players on the sideline. He closed his eyes and scrunched up his face, as though fervently praying.
The accompanying article called the gestures a “show of solidarity” against the president, who dislikes such displays, and said so. The recent practice of refusing to stand at attention during the national anthem began in 2016 with former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested police violence against minorities by sitting during the anthem.
Ordinarily, NFL club owners and the players’ union find themselves at odds. On this one, though, the owners and the union stood together.
Pious pronouncements issued from the likes of Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots. Kraft extolled “the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.” Players joined the chorus. Some issued a statement saying they would “not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country.”
I am sorry. How does this situation nauseate me? Let me count the ways.
During the 1990s, it became fashionable to wear a little red ribbon in one’s lapel. Doing so demonstrated “AIDS awareness.” Soon after 9/11, little American flag lapel pins began appearing on the lapels of George W. Bush and those who supported his pointless and stupid war in Iraq. Bush was only taking a page from the playbook of the late Richard Nixon, who commanded all of his aides to wear the lapel pins during the early 1970s. Soon many in Nixon’s “silent majority” began sporting the pins too. To those who didn’t wear the pins, the message from the wearer was this: “I love America more than you, and this pin proves it.” To those who didn’t wear the little red ribbon in the 1990s, the message was similar: “I hate AIDS, and love people who suffer from it, way more than you do.”
Of course, neither ribbon nor pin ever saved a life, healed a sick person, or made any measurable improvement in the country.
Today’s equivalent of these things are the current NFL player demonstrations. By kneeling, sitting, or boycotting during the national anthem, the player says: “I hate racial inequality and excessive use of force by police more than you do. Look at me – I’m boycotting the national anthem!”
I wish I could honestly write these words:
“Recent NFL player protests have jarred the racist consumers of televised games. After watching, these people took a fresh look at their belief systems. They decided to renounce hate and embrace love. Even now, they are taking concrete actions to erase racial inequality in America.
“And that’s not all. White police officers who watched the sideline protests have begun keeping their weapons holstered during contacts with citizens of color, even when threatened with great bodily harm, and against their training. They now limit their uses of force in such situations to nonlethal means. This is even though several of them have been killed by suspects who shot them.”
Of course, I can’t honestly write that, and neither can anybody else.
Today’s average NFL player is 27 years of age. And so he is too young to remember John Carlos and Tommie Smith, whose courageous public protest in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City in 1968 both shocked the world and embodied hard personal sacrifices.
Their raised fists, bowed heads, and black socks cost them dearly, as Carlos and Smith must have known they would. The IOC president, Avery Brundage, suspended them immediately from the U.S. Olympic team and ejected them from the Olympic Village.
Time magazine pilloried Carlos and Smith for supposedly fouling the Olympic Games with a political demonstration. The American track world ostracized them. Carlos fell on hard times and depression.
The silver medalist who joined them on the medal stand that day was an Australian, Peter Norman. Australian Olympic officials left him off the Australian Olympic team in 1972, despite his having qualified. After Norman died in 2006, Carlos and Smith flew to Australia. There they served as his pallbearers.
Compared to what John Carlos and Tommie Smith did, the continuing player demonstrations are a joke. In 2017, the player who kneels during the national anthem, head bowed, eyes closed, risks nothing. He forfeits no pay. He suffers nothing for his public piety. No one is going to throw him off his team. Indeed, the NFL and its owners have condemned no less than the president of the United States for saying that he should be thrown off. Colin Kaepernick is unemployed today. Maybe that has more to do with his diminished production on the field than with his protests off it.
Neither do club owners Robert Kraft, Shahid Khan, and their fellow plutocrats, in their pretend holiness, have anything of which to be proud. Genuflecting to their players’ union is a costless and empty act. It only helps guarantee that the river of money that flows into their coffers keeps flowing uninterrupted.
Aided by their commissioner, Roger Goodell, these are the same men who deliberately concealed and obfuscated the truth about brain injuries in their labor force for years, tried to destroy the career of the physician who revealed that truth, and stoutly resisted compensating the victims and their families to this day. The idea that they are in any position to make pronouncements about “courage, commitment, and achievement” is a joke. They have as much authority to issue declarations about such matters as the Dow Chemical Company, or Philip Morris USA. That is: none.
I have a modest proposal for eliminating this whole mess from stadia and media from sea to shining sea. I now make a gift of it to Roger Goodell, his cabal of monopolist-club owners, and their dopey players’ union. Eliminate the playing of the national anthem before all NFL games. What’s the point? Have you attended a professional sporting event lately? Does the sight of a buzzed-up civilian in a smelly Chargers jersey holding a plastic beer cup in his hand and trying to stand at attention during “The Star Spangled Banner” arouse patriotic ardor in you? God, I hope not. The national anthem wasn’t even played at NFL games until November 1963, and then only in response to the assassination of President Kennedy.
In addition, let the club owners and players’ union do this: Donate 1% of the profits (owners) and salaries (players) each week to qualified civil rights organizations who are actively working with police to reduce violence and discrimination suffered by American citizens. (Colin Kaepernick has already done this very thing.) Then monitor what the organizations do with the money afterward. Deny them future donations if they can’t show measurable decreases in excessive uses of force.
As for Donald Trump: just shut up.
Dan Lawton is the principal of Lawton Law Firm in San Diego.