Thursday, President Trump granted Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, a posthumous pardon almost a century after he was sent to prison for traveling with a white woman across state lines.
Wednesday, he applauded NFL owners’ move to ban players from taking a knee on the field during the national anthem to protest the racist treatment of African Americans.
Both Johnson and contemporary African-American athletes pushed back against racial injustice. In the early 1900s, Johnson, a high roller and hard puncher, lived flamboyantly, dated and married white women — an absurd Jim Crow taboo in an era rife with them — and in doing so poked his finger in the eye of resentful whites.
In an Oval Office ceremony attended by “Rocky” actor Sylvester Stallone, Trump pronounced Johnson “a truly great fighter.” He said Johnson spent 10 months in prison “for what many view as a racially motivated injustice.” He said all this happened in a “period of tremendous racial tension in the United States.” All true.
Many current African-American football players have used their platform, too, during this — and we quote — “period of tremendous racial tension in the United States” to call attention to police brutality against blacks. Trump pronounced them “sons of bitches.” He said this week that maybe they ought to leave the country.
The difference? Clearing Johnson’s name makes for the optics of caring that the president craves. Plus, his predecessor, President Obama, declined to pardon Johnson. So there’s gloat potential.
Unfortunately, the president is loath to acknowledge today’s racial divides — and his role in exploiting them. Studies have found that stirring racial and ethnic animus was the secret to his political success — more so than the economy, or creating jobs, or national security. His base, sadly, would not go for an inch of backtracking.
On Wednesday, team owners banned players from taking a knee during the national anthem. They can remain in the locker room, but anyone on the field will be expected to stand. Teams will be fined for allowing any protest on the field. The changes were met quickly with approval from Vice President Mike Pence and skepticism from the NFL Players Association, which said it was not consulted on the changes.
The policy changes are the latest development in a polarizing national debate sparked when former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem in 2016 to protest police shootings of unarmed black men, an issue that became more heated after the president’s misguided criticism.
The NFL teams, indeed, have the right to ban taking a knee — it’s their ball. Unfortunately, the majority of team owners are as tone-deaf as the president, never acknowledging that too many police officers treat African-American citizens with a violent brutality they would never tolerate for themselves; and averting their eyes from what police cam and cellphone videos make irrefutable — police overkill, from the arrest and Tasing of Sterling Brown of the NBA, to a Sacramento man shot to death as he talked on his cellphone in his back yard, to a New York cigarette vendor who proclaimed that he couldn’t breathe. It’s a callous slight on owners’ part — while enjoying the fruits of black players’ labor.
Aggrieved athletes have choices: Follow the new rules or, most powerfully, kneel anyway in defiance. Their cause is the right one, as they confront what we view as— and we quote again — “a racially motivated injustice.”