What good does it do the Donald Trump agenda to berate Colin Kaepernick and athletes’ constitutionally protected speech? Nothing, is the short answer, and perhaps its end effect is to further embolden the racial outrage industry whose engine runs on suggestions that America hasn’t changed much since 1956.
President Trump’s profanity-laden comments in Friday’s Alabama rally about anthem-kneeling athletes was, to be sure, a sentiment expressed countless times in old-school sports households across the country, my own included. It was the apotheosis of Trump’s power to “tell it like it is,” the ultimate example of his attractive disregard for the political norms that told middle America that they were in moral league with George Wallace. But the president of the United States calling for the termination of private citizens’ employment because of political disagreements, even ones so elemental as respect for the flag, is more than an affront to vague sensibilities of “presidential” behavior. It’s something conservatives would have rightfully shredded President Obama for and the failure of some in the Republican party to acknowledge this fact is a comment on the hyper-partisanship of the political moment.
Trump called for the firing of a private employee because of his disagreements with the individual’s constitutionally protected expression. Huge swaths of this country hate the protests and view them as fundamentally disrespectful to the American flag, while others earnestly view it as a sign of racial solidarity and encourage the act as an acknowledgment of injustice. It isn’t the President’s job to cudgel private companies to pick “his” side in that debate, and there is something chilling about knowing Trump himself finds a degree of palatability in expressing that sentiment publicly as the President of the United States.
Colin Kaepernick, whose moral universe is one where it’s OK to wear a t-shirt adorned with the murderous Fidel Castro because “we…break up families here too” via putting criminals in prison, in all likelihood is a sincere believer in every word of critical race theory that leaves his mouth. As a political vessel, Kaepernick, who once wore socks with law enforcement portrayed as pigs, spits back out the typical talking points of a Che Guevara fetishizing teenager: America’s past sins cast an all-encompassing shadow over the present, and the country’s flag stands for little more than conquest, slavery and oppression. Aside from the odd coincidence of his demotion to second on the 49ers depth chart and his Pauline epiphany about the intractability of America’s collective sin, there’s little reason to believe the now-unemployed dual threat passer carried out his anthem protests with any ulterior motives aside from a deep-seated conviction that he was the rightful heir to the throne for the authoritative athletic voice on “black issues.”
The protests are nominally over instances of police brutality, and it’s fair to assume that is indeed their primary thrust, but the protests themselves have a symbolic meaning beyond that grievance. Despite the findings of Harvard economist Dr. Roland Fryer’s study cited in the New York Times, which showed that in encounters with police in comparable circumstances, “blacks were either less likely to be shot or there was no difference between blacks and whites,” a result the black economist called “the most surprising result of my career,” the claim made by these athletes is almost always focused on the systemic nature of oppression rather than a frustration with individual injustices. It’s a flying of a certain racial flag; kneeling before the nation’s most sacred symbol makes the profound assertion that racism is alive today in much the same way it was in the Jim Crow south. The word “woke,” whose grammatical inaccuracy and flamboyant use as a quasi-intellectual catchall makes it the zenith of millennial-speak, has just this implication — Kaepernick is “woke” to the systematic forces at play that give justification to the industry of race-based nationalist fervor and its respective hustlers.
That same study, however, found that police do indeed use more force in low-level interactions with African-American individuals than their white counterparts. Police are slightly more likely, for instance, to use handcuffs with black suspects than whites. This could have a number of causes, racism as much among them as the higher incidence of crime in the black community, but the cruelty of treating folks as part of a group rather than as an individual (a staple of progressive racial politics) is of course a slight against our American notions of individual rather than collective judgement. It is this frustration — of the unspoken double standard some in the African-American community feel in day-to-day interactions with police — for which claims about the systematization of racially motivated police shootings have acted as a sort of conduit. It has been the unspoken animation for some of the black community’s support for Kaepernick’s protest. In this way, the protests are less an acutely focused political grievance but a muted scream haranguing the silent discrimination some feel as though they face. Ultimately, a conflation of their criticizers occurs with the same old “white supremacy” that Al Sharpton and the like make a career off of attributing to those who oppose their patented racial statism.
What Trump’s comments do is create a new conduit — kneeling for the national anthem now is code for disagreement with Trump himself, a rebuke to the highest official in the land for his public siding with those who dare criticize the athletic avatar of “black issues.” President Trump, whose very presidency is predicated on abandoning the tired and trite niceties of identity politics that comprised the last eight years, has solidified himself in opposition to “woke” politics, a stance that represents much more of an existential threat to the amalgam of race-sports-politics as a progressive cultural force than a mere opposition to the method of their protests. Though Trump himself has made no mention about the reason for their protests, you wouldn’t know it by listening to players and owners. It’s no wonder, given Trump’s cultural shorthand status as an anti-woke avatar, that figures like Stephen Curry, LeBron James and others whose cultural identity is as synonymous with Obamaite liberalism as it is with their 20-foot jump shot, have felt so threatened by the president’s verbal bumblings that they have taken public stances of their own against Trump. And the list of grievances caught by the net of the anthem protests now seem to extend out to opposition to Trump generally; even the WNBA has commenced formalized protests to the national anthem among some of its teams.
The net effect of all of this posturing by both Trump and athletic institutions is the complete and utter politicization of sports. At their best, sports are a respite from the political, a brief escape from the divisions that marr the cultural landscape in the United States. That, at least until Trump leaves office, is all but over.