Jules Witcover: Taking a knee against Trump
WASHINGTON — To readers from Mars, “taking a knee” is a quarterback’s tactic of running out the clock in a game he’s winning, to seal the victory. In the last two years, it’s been used by many National Football League players during playing of the national anthem, to express protest against police violence and racial injustice.
Before last Sunday’s games, this and other gestures of player solidarity were employed on the field as a collective thumb to the nose against President Trump’s call for the demonstrators to be suspended or “fired.” It was if they were contestants on his old television reality show, “The Apprentice.”
The protest was ignited during last year’s preseason, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down during the playing of the anthem. That summer had seen nationwide unrest over the use of deadly force by police against African-Americans, and this was Kaepernick’s way of protesting. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said.
In subsequent games he knelt during the anthem, and the gesture eventually spread to other players, white and black, in other stadiums. Meanwhile, the original knee-taker is out of pro football, and Trump has advocated the same fate for his copycats.
Even some NFL owners, such as Robert K. Kraft of the champion New England Patriots, a personal Trump friend, joined team players Sunday linking arms in silent protest. Kraft later said he was “sharply disappointed” by the tone of the president’s remarks, and that he supported the players’ “right to peacefully affect social change” in a manner “they feel is most impactful.”
Trump has been essentially a lone wolf with his “firing” call, but Kraft chose to address all politicians. “There is no greater unifier in this country than sports and, unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,” he said. “I think our political leaders will learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.”
Trump not surprisingly doubled down, tweeting that the issue “has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and support for our flag. If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, you’re fired. Find something else to do!”
It was a view defended by some Trump faithful in the stands, and the president seized the argument to rally them to his side as a sort of cultural divider.
Trump tweeted: “Many people booed the people who kneeled yesterday … These are fans who demand respect for our Flag!”
The protest nevertheless spread. One team, the Seattle Seahawks, declared collectively: “We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country. Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we continue to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms.”
Here in Washington, home of the much-loved Redskins, even their distinctly unbeloved owner, Dan Snyder, went down onto the field and linked arms with his players. His presence no doubt posed an additional challenge for the team’s faithful on where they wanted to stand.
In the end, the Redskins players, who had given the fans little to cheer about so far this year, broke out with one of their best performances in years, easily beating the previously undefeated Oakland Raiders. The home team’s quarterback, Kirk Cousins, after throwing three touchdown passes, eventually was able to take a knee and send the near-sellout crowd home happy.
The bitter ruminations of Donald Trump against players exercising their rights of freedom of speech and protest were drowned out by choruses of “Hail to the Redskins!” as the stadium emptied and the protest spread to star athletes in other professional sports.
One of the National Basketball Association’s biggest superstars added his rebuff to Trump’s assault on the protesters. Stephen Curry, the phenomenal long-distance shooter of the champion Golden State Warriors, mused that he wouldn’t be joining teammates at a White House reception for them in light of Trump’s attitude. Whereupon the Big Kid in the Oval Office huffily announced Curry was being disinvited. So there.
It seldom was thus when Trump just ran his real-estate empire, or for that matter his television reality show. Does he now begin to wonder what he’s gotten himself into?
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.