During a campaign rally on Friday for Alabama Senate candidate Luther Strange, President Donald Trump took dead aim at NFL athletes who protest police violence by kneeling during the National Anthem.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b**ch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump said to a boisterous crowd, which applauded his statement.
Rather than getting any “son of a bitch” fired, the president’s comments yielded a tidal wave of player protests Sunday. In addition to plenty of kneeling and sitting, all but one of the Pittsburg Steelers stayed in the locker room during the National Anthem; the lone Steeler who honored the flag was Alejandro Villanueva, a decorated Army Ranger and West Point grad who served three tours in Afghanistan.
Kneeling during the National Anthem was introduced by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Throughout 2016, Kaepernick wore a T-shirt of photos honoring Malcolm X meeting Fidel Castro and wore socks with pictures of pigs dressed like police officers. Because Kaepernick still hasn’t been signed to an NFL team, several players have continued his legacy of denigrating our anthem and flag.
So what do Americans think about this issue?
According to a September 2016 CBS Sports poll, 72 percent of respondents said Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem was “unpatriotic.” The poll also found 62 percent didn’t support Kapernik’s the stance. In July, a J.D. Power survey found that the National Anthem protests were the top reason fans did not tune in for NFL games in 2016.
Yes, players have the right to kneel and blatantly disrespect our flag. But fans have the same right to criticize millionaire athletes — and they seem to side with Trump on this issue. While the NFL claims it doesn’t want to infuse sports with politics, let’s remember Trump didn’t start this fight: the league did.
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a Sunday statement. “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”
But how does refusing to stand for our National Anthem, a moment that honors those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect our nation, unify our culture and country? If the NFL isn’t political, why are players allowed to protest the anthem but in 2016 the league cracked down on cleats that paid tribute to 9/11 victims? Why are players fined for celebrating touchdowns and big plays during games if the league supports creative individuality and allowing players to express themselves on the field?
Players have the right to free speech. The issue is that players are choosing the most inflammatory route to make their case for improving racial inequality in America. Polls show growing opposition to anthem protests because despite having the reasonable goal of improving American culture, it ends up disrespecting others in the process.
This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue — or even one particularly related to Trump — it is an American issue. Many watch sports to escape the political fray: the league’s decision to endorse such blatant disrespect will only cause more viewers to turn away.