Robert Bridge is an American writer and journalist. He is author of the book, ‘Midnight in the American Empire,’ released in 2013. firstname.lastname@example.org
For those who think American football is ‘just a game,’ they may want to reevaluate that opinion in light of a new trend among NFL players, many of whom are refusing to stand during the national anthem as a form of protest.
No other spectacle unites the American people more than the game of football (not to be confused with the European variety, which Americans rather condescendingly refer to as ‘soccer’). Every weekend, Americans across the country gather en masse at local schools, stadiums, and living rooms to watch beefy players smash heads on the field of dreams and concussions in a great collective effort to move an inflated ball of cowhide across the goal line. This violent, gritty sport gives Americans a welcomed relief from their daily travails as they focus their limited attention span on ‘the game.’
That is, until now.
READ MORE: Wave of anthem protests across NFL as Trump clashes with players & owners (VIDEOS, PHOTOS)
The holy grail of American pastimes received a body blow in August 2016 when San Francisco’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick attracted the all-seeing tentacles of the media octopus when he refused to stand during the opening national anthem. Kaepernick explained his ill-conceived decision as a way of protesting the spate of police violence against minorities.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Despite the fact that football, and other professional sports, has made many African Americans very wealthy, Kaepernick has a point. Indeed, barely a week goes by without some news report of police brutality against African Americans. And as the tragic case with Freddie Gray, 25, whose premature death while in police custody sparked weeks of protests, the offending officers regularly escape punishment for their deplorable actions.
More on that later.
Though Kaepernick is now stuck in the unemployment line, his solitary act of civil disobedience has sparked a wave of copycat protests across a wide swath of the National Football League (NFL). In fact, the movement even attracted the attention of President Donald Trump, who never met a national crisis that he didn’t inflame.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump, once again confusing the presidential office with a television game show, told a cheering crowd in Alabama last week.
Needless to say, that inflammatory comment was the shot heard not only in the NFL, but around the entire Washington Beltway, and now we see the great American pastime being dragged into the dead zone of cheap political intrigue.
Last week, only six NFL players ‘took the knee’ during the opening hymn. Trump’s explosive comments, however, triggered a mass show of defiance – much of it stained no doubt by political opportunism – as three teams remained in the locker room during the singing of the national anthem. And of course, the media was there to capture every second of the pathetic drama as it unfolded, obsessing over the empty spaces on the field where once upon a game players proudly sang along to the words of the national anthem. How did the patriotic script, reinforced by a thousand and one Hollywood films, go so horribly wrong?
Pittsburgh Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin gave a thoughtful explanation as to why his team decided to stay in the closet during the anthem.
“We’re not participating in the anthem today,” Tomlin said, adding that the action was “not to be disrespectful to the anthem” but to remove the team “from this circumstance.”
“If a guy feels a need to do something he should not be separated from his teammate who chooses not to,” he said.
Before we continue, there are some important things to consider about the demographic composition of American football, a multi-billion dollar industry not much different from the Ford Motor Company or McDonald’s.
Although African-American males represent just six percent of the US population, they comprise nearly 70 percent of the players in the National Football League. To put it another way, of the NFL’s 1,700 players, 1,200 of them are black. This statistic becomes more striking when juxtaposed to another: Unarmed black Americans, per capita, are five times as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by the police, according to The Washington Post.
In other words, there is undoubtedly a need for a national debate on the issue of police abuse and minorities. The problem, however, is that the very things that unite the country – not least of all the sacred national anthem and the flag – are being held hostage to promote this debate.
Let’s face it, NFL players, many of whom are celebrities in their own right, have many other ways of attracting public attention to a particular cause without mangling a time-honored tradition that is as American as apple pie. The behavior of these ‘superstars’ is not something any American could be proud of, and this will certainly have a profound impact on the whole notion of ‘patriotism,’ especially when we consider the millions of American youngsters who look to these overpaid professionals for guidance.
The other problem is the ugly politicization of the situation, thanks no less to Trump himself, of course. However, it’s important to remember that the issue of excessive police force has been a problem in American society long before the mogul of Manhattan crashed the scene. Indeed, America’s ‘first black president’ Barack Obama (who, incidentally, just like Colin Kaepernick, was born to a white mother and a black father), although condemning police brutality on several occasions, never took serious measures to slow the militarization of America’s local police forces, which are not only getting military-grade weapons and vehicles, but the brutal military training that goes with it. It should therefore be no surprise that local police are using the firepower and training they receive. This disturbing trend, which began under Bill Clinton, continues unabated with Trump today.
Finally, the obvious question for any observer is: How much more divisive can the United States become before it finally collapses under its own weight? What will be the final straw that breaks the nation’s back?
Personally, I am inclined to believe there is some sort of motivation on the part of the political powers-that-be to actually encourage these deep fissures in American society, which allow for other agendas to be fulfilled. In other words, the age-old sport of divide and conquer that has been played long before football.
As Americans are busy debating the desecration of the national anthem, and numerous other gone-with-the-wind traditions, the American military juggernaut continues further apace, destroying foreign countries, without a single peep from the sheep.
And now that the NFL superstars have finally decided to wage a protest, they use – with no loss of irony – the most sacred American traditions – flag and anthem – to advance their cause. Such a game plan on the part of the National Football League is a recipe for national disaster.
America may survive Donald Trump, but it won’t survive if the national symbols of patriotism are vanquished for other causes, whatever they may be.