Why Trump’s Battle with NFL Players Reveals His Racist View of Patriotism
Athletes have the right to express their political views
We can expect President Donald Trump to use the July 4 holiday as an occasion to whip up his political base by challenging the patriotism of anyone who disagrees with him. He’s been doing this ever since he announced he was running for president, but he’s reserved a particular brand of animosity for Black athletes.
The National Football League owners recently capitulated to Trump’s attacks on players’ protests by insisting that players stand on the field for the national anthem. The new policy gives players the option of remaining in the locker room during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
The players should resist this attempt to silence them. When football season starts again in the fall, those who object to Trump and the NFL’s policy should not only kneel during the during the national anthem but also carry small American flags with them. Doing so would remind Trump, the NFL owners, and the American public that their actions as part of a long tradition of patriotic dissent — expressing love for one’s country by trying to improve it.
Since the nation’s founding, Americans have disagreed about the meaning of patriotism. Presidents, too, embrace patriotism and the flag in different ways.
In his 2001 State of the Union address, a week after the 9/11 bombings, former President George W. Bush claimed, “You’re either with us, or with the terrorists.” He introduced the Patriot Act to codify this view, giving the government new powers to suppress dissent.
In contrast, President Barack Obama observed that, “Loving your country shouldn’t just mean watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it. If you do, your life will be richer, our country will be stronger.”
When it comes to flag-waving, no president has been as divisive as Trump. His attacks on the new wave of activism by professional athletes — triggered by former San Francisco 49s quarterback Kaepernick’s decision during preseason games in 2016 to kneel during the playing of the national anthem to protest police racism — has put Trump’s racist view of patriotism into sharp relief.
In 2016, while campaigning for president, Trump spoke at an American Legion convention, proclaiming, “We want young Americans to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.” He told the war veterans that he would work “to strengthen respect for our flag,” a not-too veiled swipe at Kaepernick. The GOP nominee added that in a Trump administration, “We will be united by our common culture, values and principles, becoming one American nation, one country under one constitution saluting one American flag—and always saluting it — the flag all of you helped to protect and preserve, that flag deserves respect.”
Last September, Trump launched a more direct attack on the football players’ protest. During a political rally in Alabama, Trump bellowed, “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. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Dozens of NFL players took to Twitter to voice their opposition to Trump’s comments. The next weekend, over 200 players sat or kneeled in defiance of Trump.
In May, Trump doubled-down, in effect calling for the deportation of players who refuse to stand for the national anthem. They “shouldn’t be in this country,” he declared, reflecting his broader racist view about who should be allowed to enter or stay in the United States. In early June, he then complained when Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles boycotted the traditional victory celebration at the White House. “They disagree with their president,” he said, “because he insists that they proudly stand for the national anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.”
Since 9/11, every major pro sport has been swept up in the upsurge of flag-waving patriotism. The Pentagon has spent millions of tax dollars paying pro teams to invite soldiers to sing the national anthem before the start of games, drape stadiums with flags and red-white-and-blue bunting, and wow the crowds with military jets flying over the playing fields. Baseball teams now play “God Bless America” as part of the traditional seventh-inning stretch.
Although it appears that Trump doesn’t even know the words to “God Bless America,” he has joined the patriotic chorus and sought to wrap himself in the American flag. But surely he has no idea that the Pledge of Allegiance was written as a critique of the misguided materialism and hyper-individualism of the Gilded Age. In 1892, the editor of Youth’s Companion magazine asked Francis Bellamy to develop a patriotic program for the nation’s schools. He composed the Pledge and successfully lobbied Congress to endorse the idea that school children should recite it in unison while saluting the flag. But Bellamy, a Baptist minister and a socialist, did not intend the Pledge to be an expression of blind jingoism. He wrote it to express his outrage at the nation’s widening economic and cultural divide. He hoped that the Pledge would promote a different moral vision to counter the rampant greed he believed was undermining the nation. Bellamy coined the phrase, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” to express a more egalitarian vision of America, and a patriotism aimed at helping unite a divided nation.
As when Bellamy wrote the Pledge, Americans are once again battling over what kind of country we want to be. We are debating many of the same issues: corporate greed and wealth inequality, white supremacy and racism, and nativism and immigration. Many Americans today are upset by the unbridled selfishness and political influence-peddling demonstrated by banks, oil companies, drug companies, insurance companies, and other large corporations. They are angry at the growing power of American-based global firms that display disloyalty to their country by outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries, avoiding taxes, and polluting the environment.
Trump’s knee-jerk response to any criticism of his ideas is to challenge his critics’ patriotism. His reaction to the NFL athletes’ protest reflects a narrow view of patriotism — “America, love it or leave it.”
But there’s another kind of patriotism that involves loyalty to a set of principles, and thus requires dissent and criticism when those in power violate those standards. Not “love it or leave it,” but “love it and fix it.” Americans can disagree with their government and still love their country and its ideals. The flag, as a symbol of the nation, is not owned by the administration in power, but by the people. As Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party leader, said in a famous antiwar speech on the steps of the Capitol in 1968: “I come to cleanse the American flag, not burn it.”
“The great glory of American democracy,” Rev. Martin Luther King proclaimed during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, “is the right to protest for right.” And in his famous 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King wrote that to bring about needed change, it is often necessary to disobey immoral laws and defy unjust authority. He considered such civil disobedience as part of the great American tradition of patriotic dissent.
Jackie Robinson, who worked closely with King in the civil rights movement, was a Republican, a World War II veteran, and a proud patriot. Many Americans viewed Robinson, who broke baseball’s color line in 1947 and had a Hall of Fame career, as the embodiment of the American Dream, achieving success on the basis of his talent and tenacity.
But Robinson was a fierce critic of American racism. In 1949, in the midst of the Cold War, Robinson was pressured by Dodgers owner Branch Rickey to testify before Congress to defend Black Americans’ loyalty to America and to condemn communism by attacking Paul Robeson, the left-wing singer, actor, and activist who was a target of the McCarthy-era witch-hunt. That he did, but he made that point in the context of also condemning the harsh reality of racial discrimination.
“The fact that it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality, and lynching when it happens doesn’t change the truth of his charges,” Robinson said. “Just because Communists kick up a big fuss over racial discrimination when it suits their purposes, a lot of people try to pretend that the whole issue is a creation of Communist imagination.”
In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, published shortly before his death in 1972 at age 53, Robinson recalled the opening game of his first World Series. He wrote:
There I was the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but then again perhaps the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment … As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.
In 1997, Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s number, 42, for all baseball uniforms. But they make an exception every April 15, the anniversary of Robinson’s first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, when every player in the majors wears that number to honor baseball’s courageous pioneer, even though he said he would refuse to stand and sing the national anthem to protest American racism.
In contrast, the NFL owners in May bowed to Trump’s intimidation. They voted to require players to stand on the field for the national anthem and even agreed to subject teams to fines if any player disobeys. In what the owners, but not the players, viewed as a compromise, the new policy gives players the option of remaining in the locker room during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Surely both Robinson and King would object to the new NFL policy. Requiring professional athletes to stay in the locker room if they want to express their views is like asking them to move to the back of the bus. It is separate, but not equal. The NFL policy is designed to make the players’ protest invisible.
Many NFL players were angered by Trump’s condemnations and the owners’ submission. “I think that’s the difference between patriotism and nationalism,” said New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis. “Nationalism is loving your country just to love it, you know, even when it’s right or wrong, you’re going to take the side of your country. Patriotism is loving it enough to sacrifice for it, but also to call it (out) when it’s wrong. The people who are speaking up for the people who are hurting have a deep love and devotion for our country, that’s kind of gotten misconstrued at times. But it’s important for people to understand that.”
Some NFL players have discussed the idea of having entire teams stay in the locker rooms as a way to voice their frustration with the new mandate. But taking a knee on the field is a silent but visible statement of dissent.
So, what if at least five players on every NFL team defy the league’s new policy and take a knee during the national anthem on opening day and in subsequent games? Moreover, what if each player waved a small American flag while engaging in silent protest? Such an act of resistance would escalate the players’ challenge to the NFL’s effort to limit their right to express their views on the field. It is unlikely that the NFL would not only fine the rebellious players but also impose fines on all 32 teams.
The controversy over Trump’s belligerent comments and the NFL’s new rule has diverted attention away from the core issue that sparked the protest in the first place. By kneeling on the field, and refusing to meet with Trump at the White House, the players are seeking to heighten public concern over the epidemic of police mistreatment — and killing — of Black Americans. Of the 1,696 players on the NFL’s 32 teams, about 70 percent are African American. As Trump continues to stoke racial fears and bigotry, it is hardly surprising that many of these black athletes — along with some of their white and Latinx supporters — feel the need to speak out.
Since Kaepernick triggered the protest, the controversy has spilled over into other sports. Several NBA superstars, including LeBron James and Stephen Curry, have criticized Trump and expressed solidarity with their NFL brethren. Last year, Trump withdrew his White House invitation to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors after several players criticized him. This year, he didn’t even bother extending an invitation.
Last September, Bruce Maxwell, the Oakland Athletics’ African American rookie catcher and the son of an Army veteran, bashed Trump on Instagram: “Our president speaks of inequality of man because players are protesting the anthem! F- this man!” Later that day, he became the first major-league player to kneel for the national anthem before a game against the visiting Texas Rangers. Outfielder Mark Canha, who is white, stood behind Maxwell and placed his right hand on his teammate’s shoulder.
Last month, Hall of Fame outfielder Hank Aaron announced his support for athletes who speak out on social and political issues. Asked if he would visit the White House today if he were part of a championship-winning team, he said, “There’s nobody there I want to see.”
Since the Boston Tea Party, movements for change — including women’s rights, workers’ rights, and civil rights — have been most successful when their protests were public, collective, and patriotic. When the NFL season opens in September, the players should defy the NFL’s ploy to confine their dissent to the locker room. They should proudly gather on the field and take a stand by taking a knee.
Peter Dreier is a professor of politics at Occidental College and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.