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How America’s pro sports arenas became a battleground for Trump’s culture war

The personal and the political collide for black NFL players.

Oakland Raiders v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The wave began in London. It rippled across the Atlantic, from football stadium to football stadium throughout the country. Ultimately, NFL games all Sunday long included a moment of protest during the national anthem.

Players took to their knees, linked arms, or stayed in their locker rooms when the anthem was played, all either in continued solidarity with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick or in direct response to President Donald Trump, who infuriated players across the league by criticizing such protests last week as unpatriotic and as fireable offenses: “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?’” he said to wild applause.

But Trump’s words backfired, sparking fierce and deeply personal attacks from an array of high-profile athletes, the majority of whom are black. Several NBA stars — including Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James and the Houston Rockets’ Chris Paul, who also happens to be the NBA players’ union head — tweeted a collective eye roll toward the president, including James calling Trump “a bum.”

And then on Sunday, the NFL grappled with its own public shows of defiance from not just players but owners, some of whom stood on the fields with their players or issued harsh statements blasting the president. Patriots owner Bob Kraft, a friend of Trump and a donor to his campaign, said he was disappointed by the president’s remarks. “There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,” he added. “I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.”

Trump later said his critiques have nothing to do with race, but are instead about “respect for our country and respect for our flag.” Yet the point of taking a knee is about race.

But Trump isn’t alone here. Plenty of his supporters and football fans in general say their displeasure is about “political correctness” taking over yet another arena — sports.

In the past few years, but especially in the wake of Trump’s election, professional sports and its underlying racial dynamics have made football stadiums and basketball courts another battleground for the ongoing so-called culture war that fed Trump’s candidacy and presidency. As he’s done with the travel ban, his “tough on crime” talk, and his jarring response to the Charlottesville, Virginia, unrest, Trump shows an eagerness to draw a line in the sand between “us” and “them” that often also means drawing a deep division between black and white.

Colin Kaepernick took a knee, igniting a contentious national conversation

The protests began with little fanfare.

Last year, Colin Kaepernick, like many others, saw a deluge of news about police brutality against black men. Last July, Philando Castile was shot by a police officer in Minnesota; that same month, a police officer killed Alton Sterling in Louisiana. Kaepernick says he felt compelled to use his platform as an NFL player to call attention to police brutality and broader issues of racial inequality. So during one preseason game last August, as everyone in the stands and on the sidelines rose for the national anthem, Kaepernick sat down. reporter Steve Wyche had noticed this act, and then he saw Kaepernick do it again. After the second game, Wyche asked Kaepernick why he took a seat. Kaepernick replied, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

With his words, Kaepernick set off a national debate about police brutality, protest, and the role of athletes in making political statements. After a few games, his protest changed from sitting down to taking a knee as a sign of respect. But many saw the use of his fame and the protest itself to be anything but respectful. Some said it was a sign of disrespect for military veterans, while others said the football field was the wrong place for such a protest.

Meanwhile, with each game Kaepernick took a knee, more athletes in the NFL and other sports, from high school football to the WNBA, used the national anthem to protest or show solidarity with the 49ers quarterback. On the other side of the political spectrum, critics took a sharply different view of Kaepernick. Why, some critics like Joe Montana and Tony Dungy asked, couldn’t he just keep his mouth shut and continue playing football? Why must politics and talk about racism distract from the game itself?

The politics of those on the field come from a place of personal experience

In short, these protests have popped up because Kaepernick and other players are still men of color, no matter how rich, famous, or successful they become. Black men may make up about 6 percent of the entire US population, but they make up 70 percent of NFL players. Some players see their fame as a platform to continue a dialogue — no matter how uncomfortable it may be — to talk about racial inequities that seep into the lives of people of color. For some, the reality is that in many cases, being a large, athletic black man in America can make them feel like targets for hostility, fear, or police harassment for no reason other than their skin color and gender.

Take Michael Bennett, a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks. Last month, Bennett detailed a police stop in Las Vegas that reportedly turned violent. He was in town to watch the Mayweather-McGregor boxing match in August, when gunshots were fired after the event. The crowd scattered in fear, and Bennett says a policeman singled him out and told him to get on the ground. “As I laid on the ground,” he wrote in an open letter in September, “complying with his commands not to move, he placed his gun near my head and warned me that if I moved he would ‘blow my fucking head off.’”

Bennett added he was worried he would “die for no other reason than I am black and my skin is somehow a threat.”

Las Vegas police described the situation as being far less confrontational, and insisted the officers were acting on the limited information they had. Still, the entire incident is under internal investigation by the Las Vegas police department, and Bennett has obtained a civil rights attorney to represent him through the process. This very confrontation, he said, was why he said he would continue to protest at NFL games.

“This fact is unequivocally, without question why before every game, I sit during the national anthem — because equality doesn’t live in this country and no matter how much money you make, what job title you have, or how much you give, when you are seen as a ‘Nigger,’ you will be treated that way,” he wrote. “The system failed me. I can only imagine what Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Charleena Lyles felt.”

As German Lopez and Dara Lind have reported for Vox, black people are killed by police at disproportionate rates, according to data provided by the FBI. For example, black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. And while black people are no more or less likely to use or sell drugs, they are more likely to be arrested for drugs. Black inmates also make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population.

These institutional reasons, paired with high-profile killings of black people, some of whom Bennett mentions in his letter, likely provide an unavoidable catalyst for these players to protest. For others, the catalyst may be the socioeconomic factors that potentially contribute to mass inequality like poverty, unemployment, segregation, and a mix of underpolicing and overpolicing in neighborhoods of color.

In any case, the politics of the moment and the ability for more athletes to use social media to speak directly to fans on topics as explosive as race and police brutality may have made the current showdown inevitable.

Critics cite the increased focus on politics and race for the decline of interest in some sports

There’s no question that athletes, like Bennett, are becoming increasingly vocal about the injustices they see around them. In the case of police brutality and racial justice, it’s important to note how the racial breakdown of these leagues makes such talk nearly inevitable — most (70 percent) pro football players are black, as are 74 percent of NBA players.

The difference, though, is that the NFL’s owners are generally quite conservative. According to a tabulation by the Guardian, among NFL executives and owners, donations to GOP candidates and causes in the last cycle outstripped donations to Democrats by a ratio of 4 to 1.

If the owners tend to be more conservative, so are its fans. As Neal Gabler wrote for Reuters in 2014, there’s a clear cultural tie between conservatives and the NFL. Its fans identify as overwhelmingly white and male, and are 21 percent more likely to be Republican than Democrat.

And according to a JD Power survey earlier this year, 12 percent of football fans say they’re watching less football these days; a quarter of those people said it was because of the protests. It was the most cited reason that people refrained from watching the game, followed by problems with players off the field (like domestic violence), distraction by last year’s presidential election, too many commercials, and cord cutting.

A parallel drop is happening at ESPN, a dominant presence in sports coverage. Some, like blogger Clay Travis, say the network’s decline is due to its seemingly liberal leanings. In fact, Travis and others have come to mock the network with the name MSESPN, a mashup of ESPN and MSNBC.

“If you want to just crack open a beer and watch sports to escape politics for a few hours — which is what the vast majority of sports fans want — tough break,” Travis wrote in May. “Because from now on MSESPN is going to lecture you about why Caitlyn Jenner is a hero, Michael Sam is the new Jackie Robinson of sports, and Colin Kaepernick is the Rosa Parks of football.”

Earlier this month, ESPN anchor Jemele Hill found herself at the center of controversy after tweeting that President Trump was a “white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/other white supremacists.” She also called him unfit to be president, especially in light of his reaction to the unrest in Charlottesville this summer.

Trump responded that the network was “paying a really big price for its politics,” shortly after White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Hill’s words were a “fireable offense by ESPN.” The situation became another example of how quick Trump and others in his administration were to condemn the actions and statements of people of color stating concern and worry about a growing tide of racial resentment, rather than condemn white supremacists and nationalists who have fought to oppress people of color for generations.

Trump’s problem with protesting players is another battle in a contentious culture war

The Charlottesville protests began one Friday night in August when a group descended upon the Virginia college town — flaming torches in hand, chanting racist and anti-Semitic language — to rally against the removal of Confederate monuments. The next day, a counterprotest formed, and one young woman was killed and several were injured by a neo-Nazi sympathizer. Trump reacted by blaming the “many sides” that attended the rallies for the violence, and asserted that those protesting the removal of the statues weren’t all white supremacists. Some, he said, were simply there to preserve Southern history and culture.

His condemnation of NFL protesters echo the same defense that not standing for the national anthem is an unpatriotic act that disrespects the military, as well as American culture. Consider the fact that the following Monday, the president tweeted his pride in NASCAR fans for always standing for the flag. It was a keen move for Trump, considering his base mirrors NASCAR’s base, which is white and politically more conservative. It was another way of stoking the culture war that Trump has largely benefited from — one of the factors that led to his election was likely white voters’ racial resentment, and these protests will probably do nothing to quell those feelings.

In the year since Kaepernick began his protests, some players have continued to opt out of national anthem, with an obvious wave of them this weekend. Kaepernick can’t do this since he’s not been signed to a team this season, potentially because of his earlier demonstrations during games. But by getting involved in the fray, Trump has continued to stoke a culture war over patriotism — and over whether he believes people of color can fit into that category if they question the institutional inequality that has shaped their past and could determine their future.

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