Views / Opinion

NFL links arms to protect itself, not tackle racism: Campbell

The concept of unity is only serving to derail the dialogue on racial justice Colin Kaepernick and others had hoped to trigger.

As pre-game protests spread through the NFL on Sunday, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin thought he would focus on football by keeping his team in the locker room while the national anthem played in Chicago.

Tomlin hoped to keep the Steelers out of a long-simmering conflict over race, patriotism and pro football that boiled over late last week when U.S. president Donald Trump urged NFL teams to cut players who demonstrated during the national anthem.

Less than a day later Paul Smith, a volunteer fire chief in suburban Pittsburgh, posted his reaction on Facebook.

“Tomlin just added to the list of no good N------,” he wrote. “Yes I said it.”

Smith’s comments remind us that the backlash to African-American NFL players opting out of the pre-game anthem by sitting or taking a knee was never about respect for the military, or the idea that sports and politics shouldn’t mix.

Like the protests themselves, opposition to demonstrations by players like Colin Kaepernick have always been about race.

More accurately, they’re about racism, which is crucial to remember as player protests morph into all-inclusive demonstrations of unity and threaten to dilute the movement’s impact.

Kaepernick, like WNBA players before him and NFLers who came afterward, specifically targeted systemic racism and police brutality against Black people in his initial protests last August. The concept of unity, reintroduced to the conversation this weekend, is the latest in a series of diversions seeking to derail the dialogue on racial justice Kaepernick and others hoped to trigger by demonstrating.

Trump forced the issue back into headlines last Friday when, speaking at a campaign rally for a Republican primary candidate in Alabama, he energized the largely white crowd by telling them NFL team owners should fire “sons of bitches” who protest during the national anthem. In subsequent statements, Trump has insisted that the protests dishonoured the U.S. flag and military, and that his outburst was unrelated to race.

Yet with Trump, race often ripples just below the surface.

While he unequivocally trashed Black athletes who protest the anthem, Trump hesitated to disavow white supremacists like David Duke, who publicly supported his campaign for president. He also demurred rather than denounce deadly Neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, Va., arguing the group contained “very fine people.”

When ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, an African-American woman, described Trump as a white supremacist during Twitter conversation, the president and his aides demanded the network apologize and fire her. They urged no such action, however, when national magazines like Time and the New Yorker depicted him as a white supremacist on their covers.

Trump’s blatant and subtle appeals to racial bias help explain how he garnered 58 per cent of the white vote in last November’s election, winning the support of both working class whites and the wealthy whites who compose the majority of the NFL’s ownership class. Eight of the league’s 32 team owners have donated to Trump.

And if Trump had stopped after calling protesting players “SOBs” it’s not clear how many would have published statements disagreeing with him on players’ right to demonstrate. After all, they seem to share an obsession with policing Black athletes’ speech and a fixation with the performative patriotism of the pre-game anthem.

But Trump’s tweet calling for a fan boycott over player protests prompted team owners to speak out in defence of free speech and “unity.” Ultra-rich NFL owners supported a “pro-business” president who figured to make them richer, but a boycott would cost them money.

So first came the lukewarm rebukes of Trump’s proposed crackdown on free speech. Then came NFL owners, like Jaguars boss and Trump supporter Shad Khan, descending from luxury suites to stand with players, linking arms to show unity as the anthem played.

And then came Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Monday Night Football, taking a knee with players and coaches before the anthem, then standing arm-in-arm for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

If the goal was ambiguity, NFL team owners nailed it.

The gestures showed enough support for protests to keep players onside, but by emphasizing amorphous concepts like unity they derailed yet another oncoming, uncomfortable confrontation with racism.

They also positioned figures like Khan and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to lap up praise for appearing progressive in contrast to a recalcitrant president. This week’s Sports Illustrated cover features the men alongside athletes and coaches — like LeBron James, Steve Kerr and Candace Parker — who are vocal opponents of racism.

Mysteriously, the cover photo excludes Kaepernick but includes the tagline, “A NATION DIVIDED. SPORTS UNITED.”

But if the goal is to begin dismantling systemic racism, the pivot toward a poorly-defined vision of unity represents the opposite of progress.

Rosa Parks didn’t seek unity with the white man who told her to give up her seat on a bus Birmingham in 1955. She stayed put and kicked off a crucial phase of the civil rights movement.

Nor did Muhammad Ali try to unify with a U.S. government that tried to force him to join the army. He chose a side and risked his career rather than cross the line he had drawn.

And when Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepted their medals at the 1968 Olympics, the U.S. sprinters didn’t link arms. They raised their fists in protest while the national anthem played.

Silver medallist Peter Norman stood by, wearing a pin Smith and Carlos had given him, expressing unambiguous solidarity with a pair of African-American athletes engaged in a life-defining struggle against entrenched racism.

It’s not clear if this weekend’s demonstrations will ever result in an NFL team owner showing similar unequivocal support for Black players who protest against racial inequality.

But for now, all we have is unity dressed up as progress but protecting the business.

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