What is perhaps most remarkable about Donald Trump’s Friday night rant at a rally in Alabama for a Republican Senator who lost his primary three days later, is that the most offensive and demeaning comments he made about the NFL were largely overlooked.
While NFL players and owners — more on that later — were railing and rallying against Trump, after he said that if a player failed to stand for the national anthem, that team’s owner should “fire the son-of-a-bitch,” almost no one was talking about the second part of his bellowing blather.
Trump complained that the NFL has gone soft because of rules designed to protect players from head injuries, arguably the biggest issue in sports today. More and more science is proving that playing football for any extended period of time can scramble your brains and lead to CTE, which, quite simply, destroys your brain.
And yet, Trump paused for a moment while screaming that anyone engaged in peaceful protest should be fired, to complain about the new rules.
“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! . . . They’re ruining the game. They’re ruining the game! That’s what they want to do. They want to hit! They want to do it. It’s hurting the game.”
In other words: who cares if the players suffer brain damage, he wants to see hitting! He sounded like a Roman emperor disgusted by the notion that anyone should care about what happened to the gladiators brought to the Colisseum to entertain the Romans. Their lives don’t matter – entertain me!
This should surprise no one, given some of the callous comments Trump has made in the past, among them saying that he didn’t consider Senator John McCain a war hero because he’d been captured. McCain volunteered to serve by going to the Naval Academy and survived horrible atrocities during his five years as a captive. Trump was probably upset because McCain didn’t entertain him while he was growing up rich and pampered during that time.
Unfortunately, Trump’s cruel disregard for the lives of those who play football was overshadowed by his profane, play-to-your-base comments about players protesting police brutality by taking a knee.
This all began over a year ago when Colin Kaepernick first sat during the anthem and then knelt, on the advice of Nate Boyer, a former Army Green Beret, who played briefly in the NFL. Boyer, like many who served overseas, has said that one of the reasons he fought was so that people like Kaepernick could stage peaceful protests without fear of reprisal.
Of course Kaepernick lost his job because of his protest. Before the San Francisco 49ers could cut him — which they were about to do — he asked for his release. No team has touched him since and the league’s owners and front office executives have waged a propaganda campaign to convince people that Kaepernick simply isn’t a good enough player to be worth the headaches he would bring to the locker room.
Funny thing is, the owners would have far fewer headaches right now if someone had signed Kaepernick. He had already said during the offseason that he felt he had made his point a year ago — that more attention needed to be paid to police treatment of minorities — and would stand for the anthem this season. His signing probably would have produced a brief flurry of stories; a few protests from fans and that would be the end of it. The reaction in the locker room would have been this: “If he can help the team, we’re glad to have him.” Among most fans it would have been exactly the same. Fans, remember, willingly accept men convicted of domestic abuse to their team; men convicted of DUI; men caught cheating the sport by using PED’s. Most would have gotten over Kaepernick kneeling if he played reasonably well.
The other propaganda item, gutless, anonymous NFL executives telling lap-dog media members that Kaepernick’s not a good player, is just as ludicrous. He may not be the player he was when he led the 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl, but he’s still plenty good enough to have an NFL job. As for those (again) anonymous rumors that Kaepernick turned down backup money, when someone says so on the record, I’ll believe it. Until then, I think they doth protest too much — and too anonymously.
Trump didn’t mean to give the NFL’s 31 owners (the Packers are publicly owned) cover in all this, but he did. As soon as Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a Trump supporter to the tune of $1 million in contributions to his inaugural, put out a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” by Trump’s comments, most owners lined up to say they supported their players right to protest — whether they agreed with their methods or not.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said nothing. Washington owner Daniel M. Snyder had his PR flaks put out a statement saying the team supported its players and fans. Wow. Bold words there. Of course Jones and Snyder — like Kraft — gave big money to Trump’s inaugural committee.
Jones eventually stood on the field with his players in Arizona and took a knee BEFORE the anthem. Snyder was also on the field Sunday night with his players, five of whom took a knee during the anthem. People decided to see this and others owners standing with their players as a gesture of support. It was — for staying together in the name of winning games. Real support would have been if an owner had kneeled during the anthem. The message to Trump would have been: “My players are not SOBs; they’re not un-American and you have no right to tell us that rules that have been made to keep them safe are a bad thing.”
Instead, Trump is now tweeting (bragging) about Jones pledging that none of his players will take a knee. It would be wonderful if some of them had the guts to do so this coming Sunday.
You see, courage is being willing to take the brickbats that come from people like Trump if you believe in a cause. Courage was marching in Alabama in 1963, knowing the police are waiting to beat you for marching. Courage was Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raising a fist in Mexico City in 1968 to protest the IOC’s support of apartheid and the treatment of black people in the U.S. (sound familiar?). Smith and Carlos were thrown out of the Olympic movement for their gesture and many in the media — among them Brent Musburger who referred to them in the Chicago American as “black stormtroopers” – crushed them.
Today, they are viewed by most as icons for their actions and their willingness to suffer unfair consequences as a result. Kaepernick said he wanted to start a dialogue. He did exactly that. As we go forward, it is worth noting the quote from John F. Kennedy that Dale Earnhardt Jr. used in a tweet he put out soon after Trump bleated how proud he was of NASCAR because Richard Petty said he’d fire anyone who didn’t stand for the anthem.
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable,” Earnhardt tweeted, quoting Kennedy.
Those are very wise words.
One last thought: My father fought in World War 2; the medals he received from time spent overseas are in my living room. As is the triangular American flag my family was presented with during his funeral. I spent an entire season with football players at Army and Navy, many of whom went on to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. One of them was killed overseas.
To say that I respect them greatly is a vast understatement. My current young adult mystery, Backfield Boys, which, in a twist, is about the issues of race and racism in football, is dedicated to two of those players: Andrew Thompson, Navy’s captain in 1995, who retired as a marine colonel and Jim Cantelupe, who was Army’s captain that season. The two are close friends.
I always stand for the anthem; always will. But if the person next to me chooses not to stand — for whatever reason — it’s his choice and he has the right to make that choice.
All the Trumpists screaming that we are the greatest country in the world are right. We are. But we’re far from perfect. There’s a lot of work to be done. And to yell, “find another country,” another Trump quote, this one directed at Kaepernick, hardly brings us closer to solutions.
Protest is difficult and often painful. And, as history shows, frequently historically important. Has anyone ever heard of the Boston Tea Party?
John Feinstein’s new book is, “Backfield Boys,–A Football Mystery in Black and White.” His next non-fiction book, “The First Major—Behind The Scenes at the 2016 Ryder Cup,” will be published next month. Both can be ordered online now.