Diehard Dallas Cowboys fan Shawn Simerson seemed to speak for a segment of fans at the end of an utterly insane and volatile week for the NFL and America in a video he posted to his Cowboys Facebook page, which is followed by more than 172,000 fans.
In the 2-minute, 41-second commentary, Simerson concluded he “couldn’t be more happy” with how owner Jerry Jones and his Cowboys handled a tense and emotional situation as the nation, and clearly President Donald Trump, waited to see what America’s Team would do on “Monday Night Football.”
Jones took a knee with his players in apparent unified support of the political protest, but they did so before the national anthem. They then rose as one and stood locked arm-in-arm for its playing. The plan pleased Simerson because this way no one disrespected the anthem. Simerson seems to fall in line with a poll conducted for ESPN this week: A majority of the black community supports kneeling during the anthem to bring to the forefront issues of racial injustice and police brutality; white America, more and more, is saying it does not.
What about the Rams? They have not played since Trump unloaded on the league and its players who took a knee. On Saturday evening, Trump made it clear what he expects to see Sunday, issuing this directive via Twitter: “Very important that NFL players STAND tomorrow, and always, for the playing of our National Anthem. Respect our Flag and our Country!”
And what about Trump? Why jump into this cage match with the NFL in the first place?
Some political experts suggest that with a spiraling humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, escalating tensions with North Korea and controversial tax reform, his targeting of the player protests started last year by Colin Kaepernick is seen in the black community as the latest trigger in Trump’s culture war — and another diversion from his legislative shortcomings.
Trump angered NFL owners, too, imploring them to fire the “son of a b----” who protests and urging fans to leave stadiums when players do.
“I know what [Trump’s] doing,” said foremost sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.
“My more immediate concern is what are the responses that we’re seeing? How authentic is it that Jerry Jones would be taking a knee and then quote, locking arms, with his players?” Edwards asked. “Exactly and precisely what is he locking arms about?”
The president has tweeted that “standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable,” and he was clearly pleased with the Cowboys’ Monday night response, interpreting it as Jones getting his players to stand at attention, honoring the flag and anthem. He said so in a tweet, regaling Jones as a “winner” and asserting that “Players will stand for Country!”
“If what Jerry Jones did was not in-point-of-fact in support of those protest efforts as opposed to simply being a response to being sucker-punched and thrown under the bus by the sucker-puncher-in-chief, then I’m not sure that this is worth anything,” Edwards said.
By Thursday night, hours after Trump took another shot at NFL owners, saying they are afraid of their players and that it’s “disgraceful,” sold-out Lambeau Field chanted “USA! USA!” During the singing of the anthem, not a single player from the Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears took a knee. They also stood arm-in-arm, linked in unity, they say. Several teams announced Friday they will also stand in unity during the anthem prior to Sunday’s games.
But stand in unity for what exactly? Racial justice? The flag? Against Trump?
“I do think much of the noise in the last few days has lost sight of the original issues Kaepernick was trying to raise, and that is of the systemic racism of the nation,” said Max Krochmal, associate professor and director of Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at TCU.
‘Change the narrative’
Trump, who said his attack on the league is not race-driven, has managed not only to seemingly cloud the true meaning of Kaepernick’s protest, but to flip it against the players as a kind of litmus test of loyalty and respect to flag, anthem and those in the military.
“Trump is a master manipulator and I can’t emphasize that enough,” said Kevin Cokley, professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas.
“He is very calculating, he is very cunning, and he knows exactly what he is doing. We have already heard reports that he’s had conversations that he was very pleased with the outcome in terms of the amount of attention it has drawn. It allows him to sort of change the narrative ... to focus on these cultural war issues.”
The flag, and the soldiers who fight and defend the Constitution are not the target here, and to even bring that up is a way of deflecting the conversation from something that nobody wants to discuss, that we haven’t been able to have an honest discussion of in over 350 years, and that’s the issue of white supremacy and race in American society.
Harry Edwards, civil rights activist
San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, who became the first player to join Kaepernick in protest during last year’s NFL season, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times this week. He said it “baffles” him that kneeling during the anthem continues to be misconstrued as being disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel.
“We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite,” Reid wrote. “It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.”
The great divide between white and black NFL fans on this issue seems to be stuck on the issue of the flag. The ESPN poll, conducted Tuesday through Thursday revealed that Americans are paying close attention to this issue, and attitudes are greatly split according to race. Of the 1,055 adults surveyed, both sports fans and non-sports fans, male and female and of various races, 51 percent said they either somewhat or strongly disapprove of the player protests.
However, 72 percent of African-American respondents either somewhat or strongly approved of the protests during the anthem. For whites, 62 percent voiced disapproval.
A CNN poll conducted by SSRS, an independent research firm, shows that 60 percent of those surveyed said Trump did the wrong thing by criticizing the NFL players. The same poll shows said that 49 percent think the athletes are doing the wrong thing by kneeling during the national anthem.
Some NFL fans are demonstrating their disgust by burning their team gear, setting fire to their season tickets and DirecTV has resorted to refunding Sunday Ticket packages for fans tuning out because of the protests.
“These athletes are intelligent. They’re not going to be distracted by red herrings such as “you’re protesting against soldiers,” “you’re dishonoring our flag.” No. that’s not even a conversation that they’re interested in having,” Edwards said. “The flag, and the soldiers who fight and defend the Constitution are not the target here, and to even bring that up is a way of deflecting the conversation from something that nobody wants to discuss, that we haven’t been able to have an honest discussion of in over 350 years, and that’s the issue of white supremacy and race in American society. We need to have that discussion.”
‘Fueled and inflamed’
The growing intrigue is where this goes from here. The NFL season, not even a quarter complete, offers opportunity for protests and flare-ups through the Super Bowl in February.
Edwards said he would like to see NFL players and owners come together and “turn protest into progress” with programs like one he developed with the 49ers that bring together athletes, community activists and law enforcement to hold open and frank discussions.
But such endeavors will take time and effort, and at the moment, racial tensions surrounding the league and within society are becoming more volatile and unpredictable.
Edwards said Trump’s S-O-B comment “fueled and inflamed a situation that many of the players were already sympathetic to even though they had not gotten to the place where they were ready to join the protest.”
Kaepernick, out of the league this season almost assuredly because of his political stance, holds considerable clout among players. Last year he was the recipient of the 49ers’ Len Eshmont Award, given to the player who best displays inspiration and courage. The NFL Players’ Association named Kaepernick their Week 1 MVP of this season for his charity work.
Meanwhile, scrutiny of this former Super Bowl QB has intensified tenfold since the president declared war on the player protest.
“For years, cultural warriors have gone after Hollywood liberals. In some ways this is a rehashing of that with a new target and more vulnerable target, the black professional athlete,” Krochmal said. “Lots of people think they’re overpaid, that they sort of inherited this natural talent because of their biology and didn’t work hard to get there, which is the opposite of the truth. So there is a lot of resentment among white Americans for the success of the black athlete.
“When someone like Kaepernick stands up, they say, ‘why are you whining?’ ”
And how will owners who locked arms with their players proceed — like Jones, like Daniel Snyder of the Washington Redskins and like Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, men who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee? Will they continue to stand with their players on these issues, or were they simply there to counter-punch Trump?
“These are people that gave him a million dollars, who staunchly supported Mr. Trump ... and all of a sudden they’re going to take a knee?” Edwards said. “And so I have to be very much concerned about the authenticity of what happened, and whether we’re looking at an authentic support of the athletes in protesting around these issues, or whether we’re looking at one of the most craven and degenerate instances of hypocrisy in sports history.”
This article contains information from Star-Telegram archives.
Jeff Caplan is a projects and enterprise reporter for the Star-Telegram. Reach him at 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan.