US tearing itself apart
NFL stance a symbol of much deeper malaise
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.