Ea­monn Sweeney

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - EA­MONN SWEENEY

Peo­ple are very un­fair to Trump. He’s con­stantly crit­i­cised for be­ing a di­vi­sive fig­ure, yet last week he managed to unite the Na­tional Football League against him.

PEO­PLE are very un­fair to Donald Trump. He’s con­stantly crit­i­cised for be­ing a di­vi­sive fig­ure, yet this day last week he managed to unite the Na­tional Football League against him. Black and white, play­ers and own­ers, joined to­gether in protest against the Pres­i­dent’s de­scrip­tion of play­ers who protest dur­ing the US na­tional an­them as “sons of bitches” and his call for them to be fired.

Colin Kaeper­nick, whose de­ci­sion last season to take a knee dur­ing the an­them in protest against the killings of black men by the po­lice started the whole con­tro­versy, must have been de­lighted. Instead of, as had been the case, a hand­ful of play­ers fol­low­ing his lead, you had whole teams protest­ing. The Pitts­burgh Steel­ers, with one ex­cep­tion, stayed in their dress­ing room while in the Repub­li­can heart­land of Nashville both teams, the Ten­nessee Titans and the Seat­tle Sea­hawks, did the same and country singer Meghan Lin­sey dropped to one knee while singing the an­them.

In London, the owner of the Jack­sonville Jaguars, Shad Khan, who con­trib­uted fi­nan­cially to Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, linked arms with his play­ers on the side­line dur­ing the an­them as a ges­ture of sup­port. And on Mon­day night in Dal­las, Jerry Jones of the Cow­boys, prob­a­bly the league’s best known owner and some­thing of a hero in con­ser­va­tive cir­cles, knelt along­side his team be­fore the an­them.

The ex­tent of the protests made this a re­mark­ably im­pres­sive spec­ta­cle, like the Tom­mie Smith-John Car­los salutes in Mex­ico mag­ni­fied many times over. Given how in­tem­per­ate Trump’s rhetoric had been and his ap­par­ent de­ter­mi­na­tion to seek con­fronta­tion on this is­sue when it re­ally didn’t have very much to do with him, it was hard to deny that the play­ers had a point. So those who sought to un­der­mine them re­sorted instead to a very old chest­nut, namely that sport and pol­i­tics shouldn’t be mixed.

Peo­ple who come up with this line of­ten de­liver it as though it has some sort of of­fi­cial sta­tus, like there’s a rule­book some­where set­ting down the ne­ces­sity for these two spheres of ac­tiv­ity to re­main sep­a­rate. In re­al­ity, to quote the im­mor­tal words of the po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Jef­frey Le­bowski, “Yeah, well, that’s just like, your opin­ion man.”

This idea of sport and pol­i­tics as the im­mis­ci­ble grape and grain of ev­ery­day life was once used in this country to de­fend Ir­ish rugby con­tacts with South Africa, most no­tably in 1981 when we be­came the last na­tion to of­fi­cially tour that country be­fore the end of apartheid. Plenty of con­tro­versy sur­rounded that one and sev­eral well-known play­ers re­fused to travel for rea­sons of con­science. Those who did travel sought shel­ter un­der the ‘we only want to play the game, it’s got nothing to do with pol­i­tics’ um­brella.

Yet tours such as that had ev­ery­thing to do with pol­i­tics. In a 1977 sur­vey, white South Africans ranked the loss of in­ter­na­tional sports com­pe­ti­tion as one of the worst con­se­quences of apartheid. And in 1990 Joe Ebrahim, pres­i­dent of the anti-apartheid South African Coun­cil on Sport de­scribed the sport­ing boy­cott as “one of the most ef­fec­tive non-vi­o­lent mea­sures of pres­sure on the gov­ern­ment”. By tour­ing South Africa the Ir­ish rugby team were ef­fec­tively sup­port­ing apartheid. It re­mains a sore point, write about the is­sue and you can be sure a few ‘those blacks were no an­gels’ com­ments will pop up in com­ments sec­tions and fo­rums. What the whole shame­ful episode showed most clearly is the im­pos­si­bil­ity of di­vorc­ing sport from pol­i­tics.

By broach­ing the an­them is­sue in such a fash­ion, Trump made a po­lit­i­cal re­sponse in­evitable. Had the play­ers not re­acted at all, that too would have been a po­lit­i­cal ges­ture, one tac­itly ac­knowl­edg­ing the Pres­i­dent’s right to de­monise any play­ers en­gag­ing in protest. They could hardly do that. Trump has since ac­cused the team own­ers of be­ing “afraid of their play­ers,” and he may be cor­rect. It is, after all, very dif­fi­cult to have a football team with­out play­ers. Yet I think the nat­u­ral dis­taste of very rich men for be­ing told how to run their own business by an out­sider also played a part in the own­ers’ re­sponse.

There’s been a lot of talk about fans turn­ing away from their teams be­cause they’re turned off by the protests. But there could surely be no bet­ter ex­am­ple of cut­ting off your nose to spite your face than to stop sup­port­ing your home team as a ges­ture of sol­i­dar­ity with a loud­mouth brag­gart. After all, Trump didn’t re­strict his pot-shots at the NFL to the an­them is­sue, but also com­plained that ef­forts to make Amer­i­can football safer are “ru­in­ing the game”. This seems in par­tic­u­larly bad taste given that last week a post-mortem on former New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots star Aaron Her­nan­dez, who died by sui­cide in prison after be­ing con­victed of mur­der, showed that he, like so many other former play­ers, had devel­oped the de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease CTE. Doc­tors said the level of de­gen­er­a­tion in Her­nan­dez’s brain was akin to that dis­played by de­ceased play­ers in their 60s.

Dur­ing the cam­paign Trump mocked “these new, and much softer NFL rules. Con­cus­sion. Oh, oh. Got a lit­tle ding on the head. No, no, you can’t play for the season.”

The hor­ren­dous blow shipped by the Green Bay Pack­ers Da­vante Adams against the Chicago Bears on Thurs­day night cast doubt over whether the new rules are do­ing much to clean up the game. Watch­ing Adams be­ing stretchered off, and think­ing of the huge in­ci­dence of CTE among former play­ers, you won­dered if be­ing an NFL star is quite the ‘priv­i­lege’ Trump be­lieves it to be.

It’s not just Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar sport which at­tracts the Pres­i­dent’s ire. He also with­drew NBA cham­pi­ons Golden State War­riors’ invitation to the White House when their star player Steph Curry ex­pressed doubts about whether he’d go. On Tues­day Curry, who holds a lu­cra­tive spon­sor­ship con­tract with Un­der Ar­mour, was asked if he agreed with Kevin Plank, the com­pany’s CEO, who de­scribed Trump as “a real as­set to the country”. “I agree with that de­scrip­tion,” said the player, “if you re­move the ‘et’ from as­set.”

With the nor­mally mea­sured LeBron James de­scrib­ing Trump as a “bum” and adding, “Going to the White House was a great hon­our be­fore you showed up”, it’s clear that many lead­ing fig­ures in Amer­i­can sport have lost pa­tience with the Pres­i­dent.

They’re not all African-Amer­i­can ei­ther, War­riors coach Steve Kerr lamented: “His com­ments about the NFL play­ers were as bad as any­thing he’s said to this point. It was aw­ful. You’re talk­ing about young men who are peace­fully protest­ing po­lice bru­tal­ity and racism. Racial in­equal­ity. Peace­fully protest­ing, the hall­mark of our country. Come on.” There will surely be even more fire­works when the NBA season be­gins on Oc­to­ber 17.

In the cir­cum­stances it’s hard to have much sym­pa­thy with fans declar­ing they won’t fol­low their team any­more be­cause play­ers are bring­ing pol­i­tics into sport. The video of an­other flag pro­tester, Michael Ben­nett of the Seat­tle Sea­hawks, face down on the ground, in ob­vi­ous ter­ror as a wound-up po­lice­man held a gun to his head in Las Ve­gas on the night of the Mc­Gre­gor-May­weather bout after an in­ci­dent which the player had nothing to do with, shows just what is driv­ing the cur­rent con­tro­versy.

By fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Smith, Car­los and Muham­mad Ali, whose re­fusal to go to Viet­nam was once widely re­garded as un­for­giv­ably un­pa­tri­otic, a new gen­er­a­tion of sports­men are es­chew­ing the ap­proach of the likes of Michael Jor­dan, who once jus­ti­fied a re­fusal to join a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign by not­ing that “re­pub­li­cans buy sneak­ers too”. Tiger Woods also typ­i­fied this more emol­lient ap­proach.

Crit­i­cism of Jor­dan and Woods on the grounds that they, as black men, were some­how obliged to be more rad­i­cal is un­fair. African-Amer­i­cans are per­haps the most po­lit­i­cally aware of all sports­peo­ple. There has, by com­par­i­son, been not a word of protest from any soc­cer player about the sys­tem of vir­tual slave labour used to build the World Cup sta­di­ums in Qatar and the deaths which have re­sulted from it. And when that World Cup rolls around we shall be en­joined by our TV sta­tions to for­get the con­tro­versy and just en­joy the football. Like we were chil­dren. Be­cause there are peo­ple who still think that sport is where we go to in­dulge the child­ish side of our na­ture, a place where we can stick our fin­gers in our ears and go, “na na na, I can’t hear you’, to the news from the rest of the world.

But if that’s all sport is, why should grown-ups bother with it? Sport and pol­i­tics have to mix be­cause as ci­ti­zens it’s our duty to speak out when we see some­thing wrong and to back up peo­ple who try to change those things. The fact that your job in­volves kick­ing or throw­ing a ball doesn’t ex­empt you from that. That’s why this day last week was a great one for sport not just in Amer­ica but ev­ery­where.

Maybe some day it’ll be an Ir­ish player tak­ing the knee. To protest in favour of re­peal­ing the eighth amend­ment or against the bar­baric sys­tem of di­rect pro­vi­sion or to raise aware­ness of the par­lous sit­u­a­tion of the Trav­el­ling com­mu­nity in the country or of our home­less prob­lem. I won­der how we’d re­act if that hap­pened. Maybe we’d still say sport and pol­i­tics shouldn’t mix.

I hope not.

Trump ac­cused the own­ers of be­ing ‘afraid of their play­ers’

Photo: Michael Dwyer

Sev­eral New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots play­ers kneel dur­ing the na­tional an­them be­fore their game against the Hous­ton Tex­ans last week­end.

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