US tear­ing it­self apart

NFL stance a sym­bol of much deeper malaise

Mercury (Hobart) - - NEWSFRONT - PAUL TOOHEY

WE’VE be­come a na­tion that dwells too much on triv­ial is­sues. Not stand­ing for the na­tional an­them — even though we’ve got a lousy one — is mer­ci­fully not yet one of them: every­one would rather get it over with and get on with the game.

The US since the ar­rival of Don­ald Trump is tear­ing at it­self, turn­ing non-is­sues into ma­jor op­por­tu­ni­ties. Erad­i­cat­ing his­tory by haul­ing down Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues is such a shame. They will one day surely re­gret it, if they don’t al­ready.

Now, it’s play­ers re­fus­ing to kneel for the an­them at Na­tional Foot­ball League games, be­cause of … what ex­actly?

It be­gan last year, prior to Trump’s elec­tion, when black NFL quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick and team­mate Eric Reid sat back and didn’t stand for the an­them to high­light the killing of black cit­i­zens by po­lice. Their protest was lit­tle no­ticed but Kaeper­nick did ex­plain at the time that he be­lieved po­lice were “get­ting away with mur­der”.

“I am not go­ing to stand up to show pride in a flag for a coun­try that op­presses black peo­ple, and peo­ple of colour,” he said. Kaeper­nick and Reid de­cided to take it fur­ther by lin­ing up for the an­them but tak­ing to their knees, heads bowed.

Then, in 2017, came the Char­lottesville ri­ots and Trump’s re­fusal to out­right con­demn the white su­prem­a­cists. A few more play­ers be­gan to kneel, or raise their fists, but it was hardly a move­ment.

It had lit­tle to do with an­tiTrump sen­ti­ment — un­til last week, when Trump was cam­paign­ing for a con­ser­va­tive se­na­tor in Alabama. Apro­pos of noth­ing at all, ex­cept try­ing to gen­er­ate him­self a pa­tri­otic rat­ings spike, he launched him­self at the neg­li­gi­ble band of kneel­ers, and in do­ing so el­e­vated it into an all-con­sum­ing na­tional de­bate.

“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’,” said Trump in his open­ing vol­ley.

This was fol­lowed by Trump slam­ming NFL play­ers as rich and priv­i­leged elites. He claimed or­di­nary Amer­i­cans were stay­ing away from games “be­cause they love our coun­try” and didn’t want to be con­fronted with anti-Amer­i­can sen­ti­ment.

The out­come was that from the start of last week­end, up to 200 play­ers used pre-game an­thems not in sup­port of Black Lives Mat­ter, but to re­ject Trump’s at­tempt to dic­tate the terms of what it means to be a good Amer­i­can.

Trump retweeted a photo of a seated Amer­i­can ser­vice­man who had lost both his legs in war, with the line: “I won­der what this BRAVE Amer­i­can would give to stand on his OWN two legs just ONCE MORE for our #An­them?”

By then Trump was in an un­prece­dented — even for him — Twit­ter frenzy, ac­cus­ing the protest­ing play­ers of sul­ly­ing the mem­ory of fallen sol­diers: “Coura­geous Pa­tri­ots have fought and died for our great Amer­i­can Flag --- we MUST honour and re­spect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

The Dal­las Cow­boys dropped to their knees as one prior to the an­them, but stood for it with arms linked, as did the Green Bay Pack­ers and the Cincinnati Ben­gals; some Los Angeles Charg­ers gave the Black Power salute; a few Kansas City Chiefs and the New Or­leans Saints sat out the an­them; most of the Buf­falo Bills, New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, In­di­anapo­lis Colts, Bal­ti­more Ravens and Jack­sonville Jaguars knelt; as did mem­bers of the Cleve­land Browns, Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers and Mi­ami Dol­phins.

Trump claimed this caused “tremen­dous back­lash against the NFL and its player for dis­re­spect of our coun­try”, and said when the Dal­las team dropped to its knees the boo­ing “was the loud­est I have ever heard. Great anger”.

But an hour later he was veer­ing wildly, hav­ing been in­formed that the Cow­boys had ac­tu­ally stood for the an­them: “Big progress be­ing made — we all love our coun­try!”

Trump be­lieves he has hit upon some­thing that serves him well, po­lit­i­cally, by Edgar Hoover-style call­ing out what he sees as unAmer­i­can ac­tiv­i­ties. At a White House press brief­ing dur­ing the week, spokesman Sarah San­ders found that the US tee­ter­ing on the brink of war with North Korea was a side is­sue.

Asked why Trump was in­ces­santly tweet­ing about the NFL but had zero tweets for Puerto Rico, a US ter­ri­tory that had just been shred­ded by a hur­ri­cane, San­ders said: “He’s not em­pha­sis­ing sports. You’re miss­ing the en­tire pur­pose of the mes­sage. He’s em­pha­sis­ing some­thing that should be uni­fy­ing.

“Cel­e­brat­ing and pro­mot­ing pa­tri­o­tism in our coun­try is some­thing that should bring ev­ery­body to­gether.”

Alex Smith, the (white) Kansas City Chiefs quar­ter­back, stood for the an­them last week, but did not think Trump was uni­fy­ing the na­tion. “It’s the same guy who couldn’t con­demn vi­o­lent neoNazis,” he told the Kansas City Star. “And he’s con­demn­ing guys tak­ing a knee dur­ing the an­them.”

It is a myth that sport is sa­credly de­tached from pol­i­tics. Its use­ful­ness as a stag­ing ground for protest is time-hon­oured. In­deed, it could be ar­gued that sport was borne of pol­i­tics, when feud­ing par­ties set aside weapons to sort out their sta­tus in peace­ful con­test.

Muham­mad Ali’s de­ci­sion not to fight in Viet­nam re­mains the em­blem­atic study of a sports­man us­ing his po­si­tion for a po­lit­i­cal state­ment.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uni­form and go ten thou­sand miles from home and drop bombs and bul­lets on brown peo­ple in Viet­nam while so-called Ne­gro peo­ple in Louisville are treated like dogs and de­nied sim­ple hu­man rights?” said Ali, who copped hell at the time but not enough of it to bother him.

Like­wise, when Cathy Free­man first draped her­self in the Abo­rig­i­nal flag after win­ning the 200 me­tres at the 1994 Com­mon­wealth Games, some took the view she had den­i­grated the Aus­tralian flag. Free­man got sup­port from un­ex­pected quar­ters.

“I re­mem­ber say­ing that if she’s com­fort­able in em­brac­ing her own flag, then she’s en­ti­tled to do it,” re­calls Jeff Ken­nett, then Victorian pre­mier, who is less com­fort­able about the AFL’s sup­port for same­sex mar­riage, say­ing they “should not be the lead­ers of so­cial pol­icy in Aus­tralia”.

How­ever, both codes have led so­cial pol­icy with their an­nual in­dige­nous rounds, de­signed to con­front and chal­lenge ugly at­ti­tudes within the crowds. Th­ese games are not re­sented as black arm­band po­lit­i­cal events, but warmly em­braced.

This week­end, though, we’re in for some fi­nals pol­i­tics whether we like it or not. US rap­per Mack­le­more, who will per­form his anti-ho­mo­pho­bic song Same Love (“Call each other fag­gots be­hind the keys of a mes­sage board”) at Sun­day’s NRL grand fi­nal said he was get­ting “a lot of tweets from an­gry old white dudes in Aus­tralia”.

Back­bencher Tony Ab­bott got stuck in, say­ing: “Footy fans shouldn’t be sub­jected to a politi­cised grand fi­nal. Sport is sport!”

Im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton told 2GB: “I want to take my boys to watch the footy and I don’t want the bet­ting ads jammed down their throat, I don’t want the gay mar­riage mes­sage jammed down their throat at the foot­ball.”

It is Ab­bott and Dut­ton who are politi­cis­ing the grand fi­nal by get­ting worked up about a mild song by a mod­er­ate main­stream artist that con­tains zero blue lan­guage and has a pos­i­tive mes­sage about let­ting peo­ple be free to be.

They’ve set the scene for the poor bloke to get booed on Sun­day. Or maybe it will go the other way and peo­ple will get be­hind the rap­per (who’s ap­par­ently straight).

The 177,400,000 peo­ple who watched the of­fi­cial ver­sion of Same Love on YouTube cer­tainly had no prob­lem with it.

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