• Daniel Ethan Finneran

To Kneel, Or Not To Kneel

October 2017

Is America’s cultural and political balkanization complete? Have the cracks and corrugations—once deep but navigable and mendable—broken down into unbridgeable gaps? Can these two institutions of culture and politics hope to be reconciled? Can they be redeemed? Can they return to a bygone time when they lived at a distance, yes, but in comfort and at ease? The answer to every question above is an unequivocal no. Most lamentably, yet most resoundingly, the answer is no.

President Trump’s recent feud with the NFL has proven as much. In its wake, the political and the cultural worlds within which we’ve come to nestle ourselves and define our differences have become irreconcilable. If the NFL couldn’t remain immune to the daily political vitriol and the incessant fractionalization we’ve seen emanating from L.A. and D.C, no cultural institution could be expected to remain in one piece. While Hollywood has all but forsaken its attempt to conceal its predilection for the left, the NFL was supposed to be impartial. So far as politics was concerned, it was terra incognita. The NFL hadn’t yet been charted by one side of the aisle nor claimed. It was the apolitical last bastion of a uniquely American ideal, one in whose confines all generations of Americans would eagerly go to seek refuge from an endless storm. Families would immerse themselves in the sport, happy—if only for a few hours—to retire from the indecorous politics of the day and the banalities of a quibbling life. Sadly, we mark today sport’s expiry. It no longer stands outside of politics and culture, but straddles both.

During a speech in Alabama, President Trump—during a famous divagation—touched on the topic of football players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. Speaking jauntily off-topic to a football-crazed crowd, Trump imagined a scenario in which NFL owners (who are largely white, one should note) would toss the “sons of bitches” (the players, who are mainly black) off the football field for “disrespecting the flag”.

The comment seemed not to have been born of racial animus, but the subtle hints doubtless lingered. It’s my understanding that most Americans see this form of protestation by way of kneeling before the flag to be something inherently repugnant and unrelated to the player’s race or creed. That these players taking to a knee are spoiling the sanctity of the game (and not that they happen to be black) is a feeling strongly held by many Americans not only on the right but on the left. We must assume, then, that Trump’s remark and his use of the phrase “sons of bitches” was nothing more than red-meat for a football-crazed red-state. Being that they’re gourmands as much for the gridiron as they are for the barbecue, the Alabamans to whom he spoke certainly agree with Trump’s take on the matter.

It’s not only Alabamans specifically or southerners more generally who agree with President Trump. Everyone from Yankees in the north, to Latinos out west, to Rust-Belters somewhere in between once shared in taking in Sunday’s football traditions. But the recent politicization of the sport has had an adverse effect on our enjoyment of the game. What was once a galvanizing sport now forces thousands to tune out. A JD Power survey conducted this summer confirms as much. The survey revealed that more than any other issue (of which there were many to choose), fans cited this incipient trend of kneeling during the anthem as the main issue that they’ve turned away from the game. They chose this over such alternatives as the league’s troubling epidemic of its players being charged for spousal abuse or its pandemic of players succumbing to the burgeoning tragedy that is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

President Trump thought it proper, then, or perhaps simply popular, to echo everyone else’s shared feelings about what’s become of the league. Prior to this, Trump’s only meaningful foray into football was as an owner of the short-lived New Jersey Generals. His team was one of eighteen playing under the United States Football Leagues’ fugacious banner. The league lasted a mere three seasons, from 1983 until 1985, and Trump’s ownership lasted only a third of that time. But you can’t say the venture was in vain; Trump snatched from the NFL’s grasp the incomparable Herschel Walker to be the Generals’ and the league’s boast. Sadly, though, the USFL was forever fated to be little more than a poor man’s NFL. There is something strangely foretelling, though, when one considers Trump the executive running a team of generals (as he does with Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly today).

Sensing that it had been attacked, the league’s response on Saturday was vociferous. Its many players, of whom most had taken no part in the kneeling demonstrations previously, expressed their exasperation on Twitter. Trump wontly doubled down and had this to say: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL he should not be allowed to disrespect our great American flag (or country) and should stand for that National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

The president followed this by tweeting, “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our flag and country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”. He further pointed out that “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”. I could go on, as Trump did go on, but these three tweets provide for you the main thrust.

Trump reliably referenced the league’s ratings, which is his go-to gauge for measuring anything’s success. While he’s not necessarily wrong to say what he did, there is a scintilla of impropriety in his saying it. The intimation was that a private company, like the NFL, should fire employees who act in a manner disagreeable to the Commander-in-Chief, an elected official by way of the American public. The president has made a habit of inveighing against private businesses in a manifestly public way. Most recently, he and his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders did so when they responded to Jemele Hill, a black commentator at ESPN who called the president a “white supremacist”. Of course, Hill’s remark wasn’t as circumspect as you’d perhaps expect from such a well-regarded personality, but Trump shouldn’t have responded in the way that he did. He called immediately for her ouster, but as an elected official, that’s not his call to make nor is it the pressure he should deign to exert.

Roger Goodell, who as league commissioner has been maligned and beleaguered since his tenure began (a misfortune he shares with Trump) responded to the president by saying that “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture”. He pointed his remarks more directly toward President Trump when he continued to say that “divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent”.

Shahid Khan and Robert Kraft, owners respectively of the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots and noted munificent contributors to Trump’s 2016 campaign, had blunt words for the man whose political success they helped fund. Khan called it a “privilege” to stand (or kneel) in solidarity with his players on the sideline following the “divisive and contentious remarks made by President Trump”. Kraft, whom Trump considers a dear friend, said he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president on Friday”. Kraft perspicaciously added that “there is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics”.

So said the owner, but what of the players on the field? Conjectures swirled about how they would respond on Sunday afternoon. The presentiment was that most would kneel, but not for the same reason that Colin Kaepernick once did when he sought to draw attention to the plight of young black men who were being brutalized quite discriminately by police.

Kaepernick’s message, whether or not you thought it misguided or messianic (you’ll surely agree that from the outset, it was always bound to be controversially received) is now irretrievable. On Sunday, countless players imitated Kaepernick’s taking of the knee, but few if any reflected his more authentic position. Most players weren’t kneeling to see to a grievance’s redress, nor to push an issue like police misconduct and the injudicious murders of blacks forward in the public sphere. They were kneeling for no other reason than to rebuke President Trump. They did so to spite the president—fighting pettiness with pettiness.

Yet not everyone took to a knee. There were a few broader-minded teams and front offices who chose instead to stand with arms locked in solidarity. This display showed that Trump’s message was received, but reverently so and with the flag’s sanctity sustained.

The unintended consequence is that, after having overtly rebuffed the president, it is actually the kneeling players who find themselves on the losing side. No matter how you break it down, this situation is an unequivocal “win” for President Trump—one of few marking an otherwise unproductive first year. The situation rings of Charlottesville, when Trump transmogrified his “very fine people on both sides” remark into a conversation about the need to preserve Monticello and the Washington Monument. He eventually came out on top of that debate too. Anyone who decried Lee and Jackson’s right to survive recoiled at the thought of Washington or Jefferson’s removal.

This debate over the flag and standing for the national anthem is much the same. Americans overwhelmingly believe the flag deserves our unconditional veneration, and that it would be objectionable and insolent to disrespect the stars and stripes. President Trump isn’t concerned with the nuance underlying the reason Kaepernick chose to kneel. He has detached any such concern and sees only what is on the screen; professional athletes disrespecting America’s flag. It just so happens that this is also what most of America sees. President Trump stands on the side of respecting the flag above all. This isn’t a difficult position to defend, but it’s quite a challenge to make him look the worse for maintaining it.

Alas, again as before, America finds herself in a binary position. If you kneel for the anthem, sit on a bench till the singing is through, or choose only to stand when the flag is out of view, you needn’t say a word; your defiance has spoken more loudly than any explanation could. You’re obviously anti-Trump and, as such, a hero to the left. If, on the other hand, you stand tall with your heart in one hand and a helmet in the other, you’ve made your allegiance just as blatantly clear; you’re for Trump, and for all the divisiveness and perhaps latent racism therein. You’re a hero to the right. Between these two, there exists no in-between.

Who would’ve thought that football, our most barbaric of sports, would be the last battle of civility? That politics and culture would tear the pigskin apart?

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