Greg Cote

Trump is wrong to condemn NFL protests and needs a lesson in what freedom means

President Donald Trump owes NFL players an apology, but we won’t hold our breath for that.
President Donald Trump owes NFL players an apology, but we won’t hold our breath for that. AP

The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico are desperately ravaged, the Republican alternative to the Affordable Care Act is in peril, the maniac leader of North Korea is threatening war against America, and yet the president of the United States is apparently not so busy that he can’t find time to grossly misrepresent the social conscience of athletes.

The Mad Tweeter cannot help himself.

In between “uninviting” Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors to the White House and devolving into juvenile name-calling with Kim Jong-un, Donald J. Trump has now declared social media war on the activism of NFL players.

To the crowd at a rally in Alabama on Friday the president called players who protest by not standing during the national anthem a “son of a bitch,” a slander as unmistakably aimed as it was jarringly crude and beneath the Oval Office.

Trump owes NFL players an apology, but we won’t hold our breath for that.

Tom Brady called the remark “divisive,” but it goes beyond. It agitates and inflames. It incites, encouraging anger and us-against-them intolerance.

In my lifetime, America has never needed a unifying president more or had one either less interested or more unqualified for the task.

I do not recall that Trump spoke out as swiftly or strongly against Nazis and white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia. I do not recall him calling them sons of bitches.

A subsequent Trump tweetstorm this past weekend included the president saying sports fans “should not condone” players who don’t stand for the anthem, that those players should be fired or suspended, and that fans should boycott the NFL because the league has no rule against the form of protest begun last year by Colin Kaepernick (who remains curiously out of work).

Trump could not be more wrong, and on so many levels.

First, these are not protests against our country, its anthem, flag or military. They are not anti-American protests but rather the opposite. They are very American protests in our country’s great and proud tradition of civil disobedience

From the Boston Tea Party to anti-Vietnam War protests to the Women’s March on Washington in January, Americans driven by outrage or conscience have always rallied to stand against what they believe is unjust.

It is not anti-American to want a better America. To demand a better America.

Now, NFL players have taken the lead, moved by anger and frustration, to protest a continuing lack of respect and equal rights shown to too many people of color in this country, embodied by too many instances of unjustified police shootings of unarmed black men.

More than a half century after the great Civil Rights Movement, being black in America remains a dangerously uneven playing field for too many. And to respond to a “Black Lives Matter” placard with your own sign that shouts “ALL Lives Matter!” is to miss the point. All lives are not unfairly at risk.

And so some athletes (including Dolphins Kenny Stills and Michael Thomas) have chosen to use their public platform to raise awareness to their cause, an American cause, by kneeling during the anthem.

This past weekend there were entire teams of NFL players who did not take the field until after the anthem was finished — the protest broadening in direct response to Trump’s attacks. Other teams of players locked arms in a show of solidarity.

The Pittsburgh Steelers as a team waited in the tunnel during the anthem, but a lone player, starting tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, took the field and stood as it played. Most, like Villanueva, are not kneeling. These are individual choices and rights, and both sides should be respected.

There always have been times social conscience seeped into sports. Recall the iconic photo of 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos with raised fists on the medal podium in a Black Power salute.

But what we are seeing in the NFL is not isolated. It is broadening and has begun to resonate across sports. The day after Trump’s Alabama speech, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to kneel during the anthem.

Monday, Trump’s weekend attack on civil protest was palpably on minds as the Miami Heat held their annual media day before the Tuesday start of training camp.

“It’s a polarizing time. It’s a disheartening time,” said coach Erik Spoelstra. “I commend the Golden State Warriors and for the decision they made. I commend the NFL players and organizations for taking a stand for equality, for taking a stand against racism, bigotry, prejudice. It’s disheartening to see the divisiveness.”

In times simpler and more sane, sports was the portal we stepped through to forget about life for a while. The games were an escape. We didn’t give much thought to the politics of our athletes.

More and more, though, the line between Sports and Real Life blurs. Athletes are citizens. They have a right to their activism. And, in my line of work, covering sports increasingly means covering all its dimensions beyond games. Sure as sunrise I will get angry emails for what I have written here admonishing me to “stick to sports!” But the very phrase has no meaning left. Not when even the sports stars aren’t sticking to sports.

I would also mention (futilely, I’m sure) that this is not a blanket slam of Trump or his politics, but a specific lambasting of his recklessly calling protesting NFL players sons of bitches and suggesting they are anti-American ingrates.

Recognizing the power of sports to help effect positive change in society, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross in 2015 founded RISE, the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality. After Trump, in effect, called his Dolphins players sons of bitches, he issued a statement that did not mention Trump by name but left zero doubt: “Our country needs unifying leadership right now, not more divisiveness,” it began. “We need to seek to understand each other and have civil discourse instead of condemnation and sound bites.”

Others in sports have been more blunt in reacting to Trump’s attack.

LeBron James called the president “a bum.” Bills running back LeSean McCoy on Twitter called Trump an expletive and knelt during Sunday’s anthem.

“The flag and national anthem mean a lot to me,” McCoy said. “But I was very bothered by the comments of our president. As a president you’re supposed to lead, to bring us together. I can’t stand and support our leader of this country acting like a jerk and being angry about NFL players protesting in a peaceful manner.”

Trump is wrong beyond misrepresenting players’ protests as anti-American.

He also is wrong to suggest they don’t have the right — that they should be “fired.”

It’s a bit chilling that Trump needs a reminder about the inalienable right of citizens of this country to organize and protest.

It’s chilling when the president of the United States needs a lesson in what freedom means.