Sports Nut

A More Convenient Season

It’s absurd for Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney to invoke Martin Luther King Jr. to scold the NFL’s anthem protesters.

Clemson University football head coach Dabo Swinney and Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall.
Clemson University football head coach Dabo Swinney and Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images, Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports/Reuters.

Clemson University football coach Dabo Swinney says his team has “a lot of crap to clean up” after two close wins to start the season; that his wide receivers have underachieved; that South Carolina State will be a tough matchup this Saturday because “they’ve got some dudes”; and that Martin Luther King Jr. would have never done anything as outrageous as kneeling for the national anthem. At a press conference on Tuesday, Swinney was asked whether he would discipline one of his players if he chose not to stand for the anthem. The Clemson coach said he wouldn’t, then spoke for 10 minutes about how “there’s a right way to do things.” Swinney said protesting during “The Star-Spangled Banner” creates divisiveness and serves as “a distraction to your team.” While there are still problems in the United States, he argued, there’s now a black president and a black quarterback at Clemson. “It’s so easy to say we have a race problem,” he said. “But we got a sin problem. It’s just my opinion. That’s Dabo’s opinion.”

Here’s another of Dabo’s opinions:

There’s more good than bad in this world. I think one of the greatest leaders this world has ever seen was Martin Luther King. I don’t know that there’s ever been a better man or better leader. To me, he changed the world. He changed the world through love in the face of hate. He changed the world through peace in the face of violence. He changed the world through education in the face of ignorance. And he changed the world through Jesus. Boy, that’s politically incorrect. That’s what he did. It’s amazing when we don’t learn from our past how you can repeat your mistakes.

Swinney’s shiny, happy take on the civil rights movement elides the fact that King’s methods didn’t win approval from a whole bunch of supposedly right-thinking people. King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” begins:

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”

Those fellow clergymen—a group of eight white Alabamans—had written an open letter to King accusing him of using “extreme measures” in his protests of segregation, measures that would lead to “hatred and violence.”* Among King’s methods: marches, boycotts of local businesses, and sit-ins at Birmingham lunch counters.

Back in the present day, Swinney, Drew Brees, and many others have argued they don’t necessarily disagree with the message coming from Colin Kaepernick and his fellow NFL players. Rather, they disagree with their methods. As Adam Johnson and Dave Zirin have pointed out, these declarations call to mind another passage from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

The Clemson coach indeed prefers the absence of tension—you don’t want to be a distraction to your team—and gets the vapors when confronted with direct action. If he looked a bit more closely, Swinney might see that the values he claims to believe in, the ones embodied by King, are present in the players protesting the anthem. Consider the case of Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall.

A former teammate of Kaepernick’s at the University of Nevada, Reno, Marshall followed the 49ers quarterback’s lead by taking a knee in the Denver Broncos’ season opener last Thursday. After the game, he told the MMQB’s Robert Klemko, “I prayed long and hard about it and I felt it was the right thing to do. … I’m standing up for what I believe in. I know my family will support me.”

Swinney says what Martin Luther King Jr. did was right and what Brandon Marshall and his cohort are doing is wrong. Let’s go through Swinney’s description of MLK and see where Marshall might have lost his way.

He changed the world through love in the face of hate. Racists on social media called Marshall (and, mistakenly, non-kneeling New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall) an “overpaid thug,” a “fucking coon nigger,” and every other imaginable epithet. His response: “It’s cool, because people can call me the N-word or cuss at me or say they wish I’d break my neck all they want. There’s no backlash from me. Hate can’t drive out hate. Only love can drive out hate.”

He changed the world through peace in the face of violence. Marshall told Klemko the following harrowing story:

This summer, Marshall said he was dining with friends at a restaurant within Miami’s Bayside Marketplace, an enclave of restaurants and stores near downtown. Diners heard gunshots outside and ducked under tables out of fear. Police entered the restaurant minutes later and asked patrons to leave.

“I start walking to the exit I know,” Marshall says. “And there’s a lady in street clothes telling me to go a certain way, but I went my way. She starts yelling, Stop him! I’m walking and the police come, and I turn around and about five of them rush me. They grab me and they’re trying to wrestle me and take me to the ground. I’m standing my ground because I didn’t do anything; not fighting, but not laying down.

“A cop pulls his Taser out, they push me up against the wall and they handcuff me and they were going to take me in for resisting arrest but they eventually let me go. So they’re looking for a suspect, and some lady yells at me, and that’s enough to tackle me?”

Marshall could’ve been arrested that night, maybe even killed. Instead of lashing out, he’s taken the time to explain his experience and how it parallels that of black Americans who don’t have the platform he does as an NFL player. It’s hard to see how this isn’t, as Swinney termed it, the “right way to do things.”

He changed the world through education in the face of ignorance. “I’m not against the military,” Marshall told reporters after Thursday night’s opener. “I’m not against the police or America. I’m against social injustice.” Marshall left the game with a possible concussion, leading his critics to chuckle about instant karma. “So many people have trouble understanding and empathizing,” he told Klemko. “I saw somebody say ‘Go back to where you’re from.’ I’m from Vegas. It’s hate and it’s exactly what we talk about. People celebrating a possible concussion are proving my point.”

And he changed the world through Jesus. In a 2014 video released by the University of Nevada chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Marshall said, “God sends people in our lives to guide us in the right direction.” He cited Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”

Swinney ended his praise of King by declaring, “It’s amazing when we don’t learn from our past how you can repeat your mistakes.” That’s by far the smartest thing the Clemson football coach said.

In a speech at Oberlin College in 1965, King explained why “We Shall Overcome” had become the soundtrack of the civil rights struggle.

Later in that same speech, King said, “Let us stand up. Let us be a concerned generation. Let us remain awake through a great revolution. And we will speed up that great day when the American Dream will be a reality.” Dabo Swinney—the white moderate, more devoted to order than justice—isn’t just snoozing through the revolution. He’s telling the concerned generation they shouldn’t be so concerned. There are games to be played, you know. Football season is the least convenient season of all.

*Correction, Sept. 14, 2016: This article originally misstated that eight black clergymen wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. accusing him of using “extreme measures” to protest segregation. The clergymen were white. (Return.)