Thank You Donald Trump For Inspiring a New Wave of NFL Activists

The Raiders, Bengals and Bears were among the teams that lost NFL games this weekend. But the political maelstrom sparked by Donald Trump’s attacks on the NFL produced a far greater loser: the hate mongering, white supremacy condoning, narcissist that occupies the White House.

Trump calling Colin Kaepernick and players who kneel ‘sons of bitches’ and demanding those who protest racial inequality be fired brought a lightening strike of sadness and horror. That Trump said these words when he said them as part of a rally in the deepest shades of red Alabama is hardly a surprise. Trump’s playbook hardly changes. Hit a policy roadblock (failure to repeal Obamacare), become a further laughingstock (not exactly an African geography expert) deflect it all and gather self-adulation by spewing out simplistic, hateful talking points to his base. He aims to divide us. He wants tyranny.

Though Trump’s comments mimic those of your nearest internet troll they are monumental simply because he’s the President, and despite his best efforts, most people still hold respect for the office and its power. His job title means his words matter and because his comments were so dictatorial in nature and nasty in tone, he happened to wake up an enormous sleeping giant.

Soon after Colin Kaepernick started protesting he eloquently explained that he was trying to draw attention to racial inequality that was frequently manifest in police brutality. It had absolute zero to do with disrespecting the military and when the national anthem was played he didn’t see war on other soil, he saw a one-sided battled in our inner cities. So do Michael Bennett, and Malcolm Jenkins and the smattering of other players that have protested since.

Until Charlottesville the number of players protesting was rather static, mostly a number that could be counted on two hands. The numbers rose for a couple weeks after Charlottesville and then mostly simmered back to pre-Charlottesville levels. Fellow teammates and coaches seemed to tangentially support these players’ rights but other than a few hands on backs, they publicly slithered into their own corners of job security. Perhaps they had not fully grasped what Kaepernick and those who came after are fighting for. That all changed Friday night when the president in one stream of consciousness statement about the NFL promoted racism, the stripping of constitutional rights, violence and unemployment of public citizens. Trump demonstrated the hate and division of class, the very thing these activists had been fighting against all along, and therefore the numbers of those in the conversation for change grew exponentially.

Colts players protest during NFL games on September 24th.
Photo: AP

First time kneeler Giants defensive tackle Damon Harrison had one of the more eloquent, honest explanations for his newfound Trump-inspired activism.

“This is not black vs. white. This is good vs. evil. I’m not afraid of higher ups or outcomes.” he tweeted. “What terrifies me? That chasing money has blinded me to the realities of the here and now. What good is the American dream if my sons and daughters aren’t respected or even alive to enjoy it?

The significance extended beyond players.

Late Saturday night I heard from an assistant coach whose team was one of the few yet to make a statement. (They later did). He was furious with Trump’s attacks on his players, disappointed in his organization and hoped that coaches could unite with players. Mostly he saw Sunday as a chance for his generation to spark something akin to the civil rights movement. We chatted for a bit about the intricacies of Trump’s comments and how teams might react but for the coach, the themes were the same: this is is about being on the right side of history and Trump had given the football community an immediate choice.

Sunday‘s sweeping display of activism was among the most powerful in the history of sports. There were a number of beautifully written statements but the optics of players kneeling, sitting, united in eschewing the anthem were the strongest. Many teams simply stood with arms interlocked and while those displays don’t carry the same urgency and call to action as kneeling, the formation stemmed from an obvious culprit.

Kaepernick’s message was destined to live on and grow, even if he was wrongfully a sacrificial lamb. Who knew it would be because now remorseful people like Rex Ryan elected a horribly misguided human who ignited the flame.

Sunday’s optics were just one step. The displays of love, unity and somberness across the league now must extend beyond a reaction to Trump. Hopefully the newly inspired players and coaches will seek deeper understanding of the inequality their brethren have been fighting all along. Together they must take action and continually frame the message of what the flag means to them, promote their First Amendment rights to have variant thoughts. The NFL is not the presidency, but presents a strikingly powerful platform in its own right, as Trump and the world saw yesterday. While this week’s unity was stirring, the real work will be done when we are on a path to a flag that represents everyone.