If the conscientious kneelers of the NFL care as much about social justice in this country as they say they do, they will stop trying to play football – at least the political football that comes from making the gridiron (or baseball diamond or basketball court or NASCAR track) the backdrop for pronouncements about police brutality, free speech, and whatever else may attach itself to the national crisis over the national anthem.
The real game the #TakeAKnee contingent needs to be playing is Capture the Flag – or rather, Recapture the Flag, from the race-baiting jackass who has stolen it.
Of course, the need for this is ridiculous.
Of course, it is painfully ironic that a draft-dodging, Putin-coddling, tax-return-withholding shyster should score political points by questioning the patriotism of anyone.
Of course, it is ridiculous – not to mention notably counter to the erstwhile free-enterprise values of the Republican party -- for the president to pressure private-sector business owners to forbid their employees to do something with which the owners themselves proclaim they have no problem.
Of course, it is galling to take the “let-them-have-free-speech-on-their-own-time” guff from tissue-white Trumpsters. Watching Steve Mnuchin spout that line on This Week was a retina-flaying flashback to the bad old days, when talented blacks were specimens, not citizens, who were supposed to dazzle, not matter; strictly to be marveled at while performing on field, court or stage, not listened to when speaking in the public square.
Of course, it is absurd to attach such national import to a mild pre-game ritual that the NFL didn’t even adopt until 2009.
But of course, if one feels any urgency about the need to stem the Trumpist tide, none of that counts.
Whether one takes one’s national anthem kneeling down, standing up, zoning out or flipping over, what counts is this:
In pulling this latest stunt, President Trump is not trying to divide the country into blacks and whites, or racists and non-racists. He is trying to divide the country into people who respect America’s most sacred national symbols and people who don’t. In our national politics, there is absolutely nothing to be gained – and a great deal to be lost -- by becoming the people who don’t.
What is lost has nothing to do with the votes, hearts or minds of the kinds of folks who cheered Trump’s “sons of bitches” crack at last Friday’s Alabama rally, thus adding leaping flame to Colin Kaepernick’s theretofore-modest fire. Those votes, hearts, minds and marbles are long gone.
What’s lost does, however, have something to do with the votes, hearts and minds of the kinds of folks who may find Trump rallies off-putting, even repulsive -- but aren’t too thrilled at the sight of Old Glory being dissed, either.
Now, here is where my fellow liberals are apt to do exactly what the president wants them to do, and get into the myriad facts of the matter: Kaepernick and company aren’t dissing the flag, the anthem or the country; they just want the country to live up to the flag and the anthem; they have the right to free speech; what about Trump's sympathy for union-bashing Confederate symbols and the thugs who revere them, and so on. Intellectually, these are valid points. But if the rise and resilience of Donald Trump can be attributed to any one phenomenon, it is his knack for separating the emotional power of an issue from the intellectual components of it, and then deploying the former against the latter. Time after time after frustrating, forehead-slapping time, Trump gets away with this because he knows that 9.99 times out of ten, emotion wins.
Interestingly, it may be that knowing this is the only trait that Trump has in common with all great political figures. They don’t, after all, achieve big things by convincing millions of people to favor sound factual analysis over their deepest, strongest feelings. They achieve big things by fitting sound factual analysis snugly into millions of people’s deepest, strongest feelings. Unfortunately, Trump skips the factual-analysis part. But where his opponents downplay or denigrate the emotional part, he wins anyway.
This is extremely well worth bearing in mind when considering the current flag/anthem spectacle, which is, for most Americans, an almost one hundred per cent emotion-only issue.
In fact, I’m one of those Americans. For me, as for millions of others, there’s just something….wrong….with disrespecting, or seeming to disrespect, cornerstone American symbols and institutions per se at any time, for any reason. Unlike the president and his minions, I don’t dispute anyone’s right to do it, and I often sympathize with the impulses behind its being done. But in my bones, I almost always wish it weren't happening.
I brought that little inner conflict to my initial view of Kaepernick’s first kneel-down, which I intellectually understood but emotionally disliked. Similarly, when the president invited-and-disinvited the Golden State Warriors to the White House, I felt (for the millionth time) that he had behaved like a bum. And yet, it somehow bothered me that LeBron James addressed him as such in that tweet. (And yes, I realize that in this post alone, I myself have called the president a jackass and a shyster. See? It's not logical.)
All that said, “sons of bitches” has me on the brink of ordering Kaepernick jerseys for the whole family. But if all this red-white-and-blue business stirs so much ambivalence in an anti-Trump, Black Lives Matter-ish liberal like myself, it might not be the worst idea in the world for "the resistance" to think about how it is playing out in the minds of true swing voters.
Even swing votes, though, are not the most precious things lost when Trump claims the flag and the anthem. Those would be...the flag and the anthem! True, the flag is just a symbol and the anthem just a song. But what a powerful symbol. What a resonant song.
Of all the disgust stirred in me by the president’s antics over the NFL, what rankles most is the idea that Donald Trump just might succeed in appropriating the American flag and the national anthem as stand-ins for himself. I feel queasy with apprehension that protestors might start to see kneeling down before the flag as a way of standing up to him. Or that thoughtful, well-meaning Americans may start to see more of a discrepancy than a consistency between standing for the values that the flag represents, and standing for the flag itself. I shudder to imagine a division opening up between those who salute and those who speak out.
If that kind of thinking starts to set in among those who oppose the Trump administration, then let’s all chip in to send the White House a giant Fraser fir right now, because Christmas will be coming early for the president, along with a very harsh winter for the American ideal.
Trump and his crowd of crazy Confederates would like nothing more than for their opponents, from Colin Kaepernick to yours truly, to spit on the American flag. That’s precisely our cue to seize it.
Thankfully, something like this process has already started. Already this past weekend, the country fairly burst with examples of Americans finding their own ways to embrace the nation while acknowledging its failings. There were the two performers who went ahead and sang the national anthem, then knelt down at the very end. The baseball rookie and military son who knelt, cap on heart, through the anthem, then rose to accept a hug from his white teammate. The numerous military veterans who tweeted that they fought for exactly the rights being exercised by the players on their knees. The sports veterans, too: almost everybody on Sunday’s Fox Sports panel came out swinging against Trump on this, but it was doughy, twangy Terry Bradshaw you could practically see reaching into the corn-chip bowl and the conscience of every old white guy watching.
That’s all great, but it’s not enough. Nor is it enough to assert, as many have, that seeking social justice can go hand in hand with patriotism. An effective message has to communicate that seeking social justice is patriotism. That message has to be delivered in every bit as visceral and vivid a style as any “Build That Wall” or “Lock Her Up!” that Trump has ever come out with.
If professional athletes really want to promote equality for black Americans, they are much better off finding a way to do so in the context of revering, not rejecting, the flag of all Americans.
This is not an easy needle to thread. Fortunately, the NFL is not new to branding, and its employees are not new to competition. These guys know how to win.
They’ve just got to start playing the right game.