Strange, but the things that make the NFL the absolute worst place for nuanced debate have made it the perfect place for America to tear itself up about race – and the perfect, easy target for President Donald Trump.
How better to appeal to your base, after all, than to take a shot at a bunch of uppity athletes – largely African-American – using their platform to make a statement about issues either too complex or too disconcerting for great, wide, swaths of a country where fear of “the other” can explain all manners of economic and social disparity? Let’s face it: that’s what Trump is doing; he’s picking a fight by tapping into an intellectually shallow but nonetheless deeply-felt well of hatred.
If a symbolic act such as “taking a knee” to show concern about race relations or social inequality and justice bothers you, you are guilty of feeding the beast. If you were one of the boobs heckling or chanting ‘Stand up’ at NFL players, you yourself are guilty of disrespecting the anthem and its inherent meaning. In the very least, you need to explain yourself. Land of the free? Sure.
The NBA can only thank itself that training camps are only just starting. Other than Trump’s comedic “disinvitation” to the White House to a Golden State Warriors team whose only reason to attend in the first place would be a chance to speak truth to power, commissioner Adam Silver and his owners have time to figure out their strategy. My guess is baseball’s about to have it’s own “take a knee” moment, with the playoffs just around the corner and Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell already showing the way.
In the meantime, it’s rich seeing the NFL become the focal point for all of this because no other league has been guilty of repeatedly pandering to fake patriotism. Players didn’t normally come out for the national anthem until 2009, when the NFL started snuggling up to the U.S. military in a trend that eventually saw the league receive $5.4 million from the Department of Defence between 2011-14 to stage “patriotic ceremonies” and get further money from the National Guard to promote its agenda. Somebody’s got to pay for those flyovers, right?
Truth is, the NFL has skated by repeatedly in the past on any matter of significance because of its might and compliant media culture, whether it was the shameful manner in which Congress gave it a pass when that body was in its steroid witch-hunt phase, the wholesale inattention paid to the broken bodies and minds of generations of players and the ‘boys will be boys’ approach it took for so long to off-field issues involving its players. When it came to crime perpetuated by players, the NFL for the longest time was the ultimate “lemme make a call and see what I can do about it” league.
If you were at Sunday’s Toronto Blue Jays vs. New York Yankees game, you no doubt noticed the Yankees have everybody on the field for the national anthem, in front of the dugout or up the line where they’ve been stretching. They stand ramrod straight, hat over heart. That’s the Yankees way.
Other teams are similarly wired and some, like the Toronto Blue Jays? Well, let’s just say that you’d have a difficult time figuring out who’s in uniform on some days if you waited until they came out for the anthem. Manager John Gibbons is a military brat and no snowflake liberal – we have some dandy discussions, and it usually ends as Sunday morning’s did: with Gibbons joking that he might put left-handed reliever Matt Dermody in the game just to hear his walk-up music – “Stranglehold,” by the right-wing Ted Nugent – but martialing the forces for the anthem is, shall we say, not high on his list of priorities. That is very much an individual decision, which in my military family was what we were taught. (And for the record, Gibbons did in fact use Dermody to face Greg Bird and ‘Stranglehold’ was indeed played. God, I love Gibby!)
In the meantime, reports came in from all over the NFL of teams voting to stay in their locker room during the anthem or players kneeling or linking arms or both – and of fans braying and heckling and chanting ‘stand up,’ at players. At the same time, the NHL-champion Pittsburgh Penguins snuck out a press release reiterating that they were in fact going to take the Stanley Cup to the White House, just as they did when George W. Bush and Barack Obama were in office.
I know your first reaction: of course, hockey. Truth is, nobody much cares about hockey south of the border and until Trump invades Canada, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland or Russia, most NHL players will be able to wave their passports and say: ‘See! Not my issue!” Besides, white, upper-class dudes earning millions are doing OK in Trump’s U.S.A. So it’s no surprise that the Penguins would be OK with dragging the Cup to the White House. Lord knows the mug’s been through worse things in its life than spending time with Trump. I mean … it has to have been through worse, right? Right?
I have to admit: the whole ‘visit to the White House’ thing has always caused conflict for me, anyhow. However loathsome the individual holding office or however much the person in power holds viewpoints that differ from yours, there is a notion that you respect the office, if not necessarily the office-holder. That’s the tack the Penguins have taken, and fair play to them. I can buy that. Honestly, I can.
What will be interesting is whether the team forces any of its players to go against their wishes and all I know is I bet Sidney Crosby gets up this morning and kisses his Canadian passport – a “get-out-of-jail card” for U.S. domestic political debate if there ever was one. There are a lot of us who think it would be great for Sid the Kid to show some stones and demur and join the legion of athletes who have called B.S. on Trump’s divisive rhetoric and join the vanguard of socially aware athletes – as my friend Jeff Marek said on Twitter on Sunday this is a weekend to pick sides – but as is the case with a national anthem, it’s Sid’s call. I just hope somebody prepares him. Sports, and particularly sports fans, don’t always do nuance really well.