After the president said those kneeling to highlight issues of racial justice should be fired, players across the league showed defiance in different ways
It's football Sunday, and I have a pit in my stomach, and a sickening sense of deja vu. Who knows what the day will bring?
I do know the source of my disquiet. It is the stench of bigotry as a demagogue stirs the potent cauldron of racial division. I want to say, this is so unnecessary. We have so many other things we should be worrying about. But of course now this is real, and it must be called out. This is an age when no one can be neutral. To remain silent in the face of race-baiting is to be complicit. And I have seen the cost of complicity. It is ugly.
On Friday night, and then in a chain of tweets (what else) President Trump targeted African American athletes for provocation and ridicule. He has called into question their Americanness, as he called into question the Americanness of his predecessor President Obama. Perhaps what is saddest about this moral cowardice is that Mr. Trump may derive some political gain from these attacks amongst his supporters, but he fails in the test of leadership. Big time. For a President to be doing this - pouring gasoline on the embers of racial resentment - is really unspeakable. Instead of trying to reduce the potentially explosive emotions about race, he is trying to exacerbate them for his own gain.
I have seen this game plan before. My mind is transported across the decades. I hear the adjective "uppity", and much worse. I see the mouths of authority curl with disdain and mutter "what do you think you're doin', boy?" - the last word spit out in disgust.
I feel time click into rewind, to when African Americans weren't thought of as being "smart" enough to play quarterback, to when there was a "gentlemen's agreement" amongst college basketball coaches to the total number of African American players on the court. Backwards still to all-white teams, and all-white leagues. I remember Jackie Robinson, and a time before someone of his skin color dared to think he could earn a living as an athlete in the United States.
I know this history. And so does Donald Trump. He understands how salient the trope of the "angry black man" is. It was said of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other now-revered leaders of the civil rights struggle. It is so ingrained in our history that it can become resonant even in those who say they aren't bigoted. So Mr. Trump plucks at it. He knows that he can use the American flag as a symbol of division and not unity. So he sows that thought.
I grant that there are many who are offended by players taking a knee during the National Anthem. That is their right, as it is the right of those who protest to have their speech protected. This is how we discuss our differences peacefully in a democracy. But calling out these players as S.O.B.s (but using the actual profane words) who should be fired, that's a pointed attack on our Constitutional rights. And it is summoning the dark shadows of centuries of racial stereotyping. Let's just say I have seen plenty of white S.O.B.s in sports who have been given awards rather than pink slips.
President Trump is not trying to win over the majority of the American people. He wants to animate his base and bask in its approval. Will his supporters in Congress continue to stand by in tell-tale silence? Will his donors, including some of the owners of professional sports teams?
We are not a nation of majority bigots. The strident ranks of the intolerant can be overwhelmed by enough people agreeing that this is not who we are, or who we want to be. Mr. Trump's cheers can be drowned out by a chorus of justice.
And one final thought, we have seen these distractions before. As Mr. Trump dominates the news cycle over race, as he issues bellicose threats to North Korea, one wonders what bombshells may be brewing in the Russia investigation, which seems to be gaining speed and scope.