Trump, The NFL And The Powder Keg History Of Race, Sports And Politics : NPR

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American gold medalist Tommie Smith, center, and bronze medalist John Carlos raise their fists in the air in a black power salute during the playing of the U.S. national anthem at the 1968 Olympics.

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American gold medalist Tommie Smith, center, and bronze medalist John Carlos raise their fists in the air in a black power salute during the playing of the U.S. national anthem at the 1968 Olympics.

Anonymous/AP

Sunday was a historic day for the intersection of sports and politics.

Widespread protests in the National Football League, the most popular professional sport in America, were shown on broadcast channels across the country.

Stick to sports? Not this week. Whether sports fans wanted to see it or not, they couldn’t avoid politics.

Athletes — mostly black — from every team in the country knelt, stood arm in arm, sat or refused to take the field for the national anthem. They even took it abroad with the first protest taking place in England, in a game that represents the NFL’s effort to broaden the league’s appeal.

And it’s all because of President Trump.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now’? “He’s fired!” Trump said at a political rally in Alabama referring to NFL players who have knelt or sat in protest of social injustices, particularly in communities of color, as the national anthem has played.


Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first to make the controversial statement last year before Trump’s election over police violence in black communities. The practice seemed to be fading in the NFL — until Trump weighed in.

Trump has given it new life. It’s become about freedom of speech — and something of a galvanizing anti-Trump protest.

The Alabama crowd ate it up. Trump was there to promote his preferred candidate, Luther Strange, in the Alabama Republican primary runoff taking place Tuesday. Strange later said he thinks the comments could help him win the primary. He’s running against an even better known culture warrior in former Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore.


Trump’s continued focus on the issue — 15 tweets between Saturday and Monday morning — could very well help his preferred candidate in the short term. It also could have the effect of keeping his base unified while he tries to work with Democrats and another GOP health care bill is on the verge of collapsing.


(This weekend also saw officials in Puerto Rico crying out for help in its attempts at recovery after Hurricane Maria. While FEMA issued a press release laying out all it’s trying to do for the — American — island, President Trump tweeted zero times about the crisis there.)

But this is bigger than who becomes the next Alabama senator. This is about where this moment in history, with a president like President Trump at the helm of the country, fit in. It’s another chapter in a divisive history of sports, politics and race.

‘This has nothing to do with race’

Trump told reporters in New Jersey Sunday, “No, this has nothing to do with race,” when asked if he was inflaming racial tension. “I’ve never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.”

And Trump has plenty of like-minded Americans — and football fans — with him.

“It’s disgusting,” one woman told a Fox News reporter at the New York Jets-Miami Dolphins game Sunday. She also said what the players were doing was “unethical” and a “disgrace.”

Another woman said, “They’re paying these guys to do a job. They’re not supposed to be involved in politics.”


That sentiment could be found across social media, from Twitter to Facebook.

A Quinnipiac poll last year found that, by a 54-to-38-percent margin, most Americans disagree with NFL players refusing to stand for the anthem.

But there was a huge racial divide. Almost two-thirds of whites disapproved of not standing for the anthem, while three-quarters of African Americans approved of the tactic.

And that might fundamentally be because of a disagreement over the core issue of the original Kaepernick protest — police violence in black communities. The same poll found 70 percent of whites approve of the job the police are doing, while two-thirds of blacks do not.

Athletes in the NFL are overwhelmingly black — 70 percent of the league, in fact.

A long and complicated history of black athletes protesting in sports

Jesse Owens competing in one of the heats of the 200-meter run at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Owens won four gold medals at games in front of Hitler.

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Jesse Owens competing in one of the heats of the 200-meter run at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Owens won four gold medals at games in front of Hitler.

AP

Athletes, especially black athletes, have used the megaphone sports provides to protest for a long time.

Jesse Owens and 17 other black American Olympians went into the 1936 Olympics in Germany and won medal after medal in front of Hitler. (Two American Jewish runners — Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller — however, were denied the chance to run because of Nazi opposition that the U.S. Olympic Committee acquiesced to.)

Those 18 black athletes accounted for a quarter of the entire U.S. team’s medals in Berlin. But nearly all faced racism, backlash and a lack of fully integrated rights as citizens back home in a segregated America.


Thirty-two years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, American gold and bronze medal winners at the 1968 Olympic games, donned black gloves and raised their arms in a black power salute from the medal podium in Mexico City. (Australian runner, Peter Norman, who is white and won the silver, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support of their efforts.)

Consider the time: 1968 was another inflection point year in American political and social history. Violence was spilling out in the civil-rights and integration movement. Cities had been burned from rioting the year before. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

Like today, the country was divided politically and along racially lines.

Smith and Carlos, too, were met with opposition to their podium statement. The U.S. Olympic Committee, in fact, sent Owens to Mexico City to try and convince Smith and Carlos not to do it. He was unsuccessful. After their wins, they were stripped of their medals by the head of the International Olympic Committee.

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