Not satisfied with taking on the Rocket Man of North Korea, and at the same time trying to repeal and replace Obamacare if not the nuclear deal with Iran and NAFTA, President Trump has taken on a most sacred place in America’s heart, its professional athletes. At a political rally in Alabama last Friday, he asked: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of those N.F.L. owners when someone disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired.’”
Not content to rant about a few professional football players who during the national anthem before games have protested about police brutality, Trump tweeted the next morning that he would not invite Stephen Curry, a basketball star with the Golden State Warriors, to the White House as part of the ceremonial visit of the championship teams. He interprets the protests as unpatriotic.
The line between politics and sports in the United States has been crossed again, reminiscent of the 1960’s when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists at a 1968 Olympics medal ceremony and when in 1967 Muhammad Ali refused to serve in the army.
Players in all the major American sports reacted to Trump’s broadside and tweet. At Sunday’s professional football games, some players knelt or locked arms on the sidelines during the pregame ritual. The Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the locker room except for one player, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Led by LeBron James, basketball players voiced support for the N.F.L. protests. Even a baseball player knelt this weekend during the anthem.
The protests began, as many do, with a very simple event similar to the Arab Spring explosion after Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia. Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, last year knelt during the playing of the national anthem at several games to protest, he said, police brutality and racial injustice. He has not been hired by any team since.
The protests have gone beyond the players. Several team owners, generally favorable to Republicans and President Trump, condemned the president’s divisiveness. Robert K. Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots and a friend and campaign donor to the president, said: “I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday.” Kraft said he supported the players’ “right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel impactful.” The owners of the Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions also expressed displeasure with Trump’s comments as did the National Football League Commissioner.
Sports are an integral part of American culture. The Super Bowl is as important as the Fourth of July. Whatever their politics, presidents traditionally welcome championship teams to the White House. Steve Kerr, coach of the champion Warriors has visited the White House under several presidents. After his team was disinvited, Kerr said: “The idea of civil discourse with a guy who is tweeting and demeaning people and saying the things he’s saying is sort of far-fetched. Can you picture us really having a civil discourse with him?”
Donald Trump likes to provoke. That we understand. Some even accept this style. Indeed, to try to be fair, many fans booed the protestors, either because they were against the causes of the protests or because they didn’t want to see a protest during their sports outing. After all, sports is supposed to be a diversion from everyday realities. Carlos and Smith were quickly expelled from the Olympic Games and marginalized by the sporting establishment for being political during a “neutral” sporting event.
For refusing to serve in the army - “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” - Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. (The sentence was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.)
The separation of sports from politics is an illusion. Some examples from the modern Olympics reinforce that false separation: the racism and discrimination at the Berlin 1936 Games, the barring of South Africa from the 1964 Olympics, the violence in Munich in 1972 and Atlanta 1996 or the boycotts of the 1980 Moscow Olympics or 1994 Los Angeles Games. Pierre de Coubertin revived the Games in the spirit of understanding and peace. His idealism is praiseworthy, but remains an ideal.
We are not sure why Donald Trump chose to open a Pandora’s Box by attacking U.S. professional athletes. Was there some hidden racism since most of the athletes criticized are black? Was he merely pandering to a predominantly white audience and his predominantly white base? Whatever the reason, the reaction has been immediate and extensive, and another arrow in the quiver of those hoping this nightmare will end.