Sports Nut

The NFL Protests Are About a Lack of Empathy

Players want people to understand that, however Trump spins things, the protests aren’t an “anthem cause.”

Members of the Colts kneel prior to the start of their game on Sunday in Indianapolis.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

On Friday night in Alabama, President Donald Trump commented on the protests for racial justice that took off last year after Colin Kaepernick sat during the anthem. Trump labeled the NFL players who had protested—almost all of them black—“sons of bitches.” Over the weekend, more than 150 NFL players, alongside coaches, owners, and players in other sports, protested. On Monday’s episode of Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Marcus Thompson discussed the demonstrations. A transcript, which has been edited for clarity, is below.

Stefan Fatsis: Trump managed to turn kneeling into a protest against him. Did the events of this weekend do more?

Marcus Thompson: I think they did. If the NFL owners who directly supported the campaign of Donald Trump are like, Hold on dude, chill, and if Roger Goodell has to send a statement—and we all know Roger Goodell is not trying to be the responsible one—then you know we have something here. You know something big has happened when Ray Lewis, who was ripping the whole thing, now is on his knees praying.

It’s amazing that the president was able to do this, and in a sense it’s almost commendable that he could be so derogatory as to turn his former friends against him. It’s just crazy.

Josh Levin: The thing that was really notable about Sunday is that Colin Kaepernick wasn’t there. Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker was saying on Twitter that this is the ending of the Colin Kaepernick movie—where the swelling music comes in and his protest takes over the whole NFL and the whole country.

But there’s something a little bit off that the folks who blackballed Kaepernick are now being celebrated as heroes. Trump has made it so that in order to show our disgust with him, we need to support this league that has not covered itself in glory with respect to Kaepernick and these protests and a whole lot of other issues.

Fatsis: I feel like we’re giving these guys cover for their previous behaviors. Despite all of these statements from almost every NFL team—some of them great, some of them progressive, some of them thoughtful, some ass-covering—Kaepernick is still out of work. This guy was blackballed.

Thompson: It’s really not about doing the right thing. It’s not even about the conversation Kaepernick was trying to start. The hypocrisy in all of it is that they just want to sell tickets. Meanwhile, there’s no Kaepernick, and now you have even more distraction.

Levin: The NFL is not an organization that you would ever consider progressive. The fact that the owners and the commissioner’s office came out in support of players this strongly after Trump attacked them—doesn’t that show just how amazingly awful and craven the ESPN response was after Jemele Hill got attacked? ESPN couldn’t even say, We don’t necessarily support what she said, but we support her right to say it. And there is no way in hell that the president is going to tell us who we can employ. The fact that that statement didn’t come from [ESPN President] John Skipper now just looks even worse to me.

In the Alabama rally, Trump also said that football isn’t violent enough anymore—that basically the players are all wimps and it’s the wussification of America. That statement gave the game away for me. Trump doesn’t care about any of the stuff that he’s saying—things that he feels like white people in the middle of the country who feel like football players are rich and they’re complaining and they’re millionaires and also they don’t even give each other brain damage anymore care about. This has very little to do with his beliefs about patriotism and the flag, and it’s just all about telling the people who voted for him what they want to hear.

Thompson: I just don’t understand why nobody can get this dude to shut up.

Levin: [Chief of staff] John Kelly is getting the White House on lock.

Thompson: He’s so self-destructive. We’re just talking about football; we’re just talking about NFL players. Somebody needs to get him to chill in foreign relations, and they can’t do it. We’re about to be in a nuclear war because this dude can’t control his mouth. It is insane that the president is like my uncle who drinks a little too much and probably has an old heroin addiction. He and my uncle are the same.

Fatsis: He’s Donny from Queens calling into WFAN. He’s the dipshit at the end of the bar.

But there is a history with the NFL and all of those decades when banks and cities and media and elected officials were enabling Trump’s businesses and his personal bullshit. Only the NFL told him to fuck off, and the first time it did it was in the 1980s when he owned the New Jersey Generals in the USFL. Trump pushed the USFL to move to a fall schedule to pressure the NFL effectively to give him a franchise and then sued the NFL on antitrust grounds and ran the USFL under. More recently, he tried to buy the Buffalo Bills and was laughed out of the room. So if the NFL were taking some sort of moral high ground by attacking Donald Trump, it certainly was in a position to do so given its past relationship.

Thompson: Meanwhile they also gave several million to his campaign? He’s a piece to the right. He’s a cog.

Even though they probably kowtow in this PR situation, the NFL knows it’s bigger than the president. People are going to ride with the NFL; it’s the arrogance of the NFL. They’re showing that like even we will contradict ourselves and ride with players. That’s the part that’s so amazing. Trump has so low temperance that he’s pissing off all his friends, his guys who have to be like, Man, dude, you’re killing me. I have to put out a statement against you, even though you’re my guy, and I’m giving you money. That’s how wild he is.

Levin: [Former Bills coach] Rex Ryan came up particularly badly in this whole episode. Ryan goes on the ESPN pregame show—Ryan, who introduced Trump at a rally and owned up to that fact in his little soliloquy—and now says, I’m pissed off. I can’t believe Trump called players sons of bitches. Well, I guess it was cool when Trump calls Mexicans coming across the border “rapists,” that was fine, but if you call NFL players “sons of bitches,” that crosses your red line, Rex Ryan? Good for owners or commentators for getting religion at this point, I guess?

But people need to have empathy. People need to understand that when the most powerful guy in the world or a candidate for the presidency is saying really awful stuff about people who are voiceless or who are less powerful, maybe he could say that about somebody that you know or that you care about at some point. Maybe you shouldn’t empower somebody who makes statements like that. That seems pretty obvious to me, you idiot, Rex Ryan.

Thompson: All of this is about lack of empathy. The fact that it’s being dubbed an “anthem cause” or “anthem protest” shows that people don’t care about what the actual cause is.

The bottom line is—and I talked with Kaepernick plenty times about this—he’s hurting about what he’s seeing. It’s about this sorrow you see as someone who is successful, and you feel bad because you’re in this spot, and people are hurting, and it hurts you. I know the feeling: I went to college, and my family back at home was struggling, and people were hungry, and I’m in college chilling. You feel bad, right? So he’s hurting. And the answer is Dude, could you please stand for the anthem? Nobody’s acknowledging the fact that Malcolm Jenkins and Michael Bennett are hurting. They’re seeing what’s happening, and all people care about is how they lashed out, so to speak. And that’s one of the parts that really gets me about the Tom Bradys and the Drew Breeses: You’re big on this team, but your teammates over there are hurting. You should probably go do something about it. That’s what Mark Canha from the A’s saw when catcher Bruce Maxwell wanted to kneel, and he’s like, All I know is he was talking to us, and he was get choked up, and I saw that guy needed a brother today. So he puts his hand on his shoulder. Empathy is at the core of it, and we see how much it’s lacking.

Levin: For all the criticism of we don’t even know what they’re protesting, Malcolm Jenkins, along with Anquan Boldin, made a video for Sports Illustrated and has talked relentlessly about the very specific issues around criminal justice reform. He has supported specific legislation and policies around what he wants to see around policing, particularly with people of color and mass incarceration. Michael Bennett has talked about an extremely specific set of issues relating to what happened to him personally in Las Vegas. This core set of players was drilling down and making this protest about something specific. Then Trump comes in, and now it’s about the players versus Trump, the players versus the anthem, and the layers versus the flag. It becomes less specific of a cause.

Fatsis: It falls back on the NFL to take further action. A couple of days before all of this went down, a group of current and former NFL players, including Jenkins and Boldin, wrote a 10-page memo to Goodell asking for league support and cooperation in a campaign for racial equality and criminal justice reform. There’s this document that’s sitting on either Goodell’s desk or some PR guy’s desk at the NFL with specific requests on how the league can help make this not about disrespecting the flag or disrespecting the military or respecting the anthem but can take concrete steps to make its fans aware of why these African American young men feel hurt and feel pain and want progress to occur, want change to occur. Here’s a specific set of things that you, the NFL, can now do.

Levin: One one side, the president of the United States retweets some rando on Twitter, writes something completely ignorant about Pat Tillman and the flag, not understanding at all who Tillman was and what he stood for. On the other side, you have people like Malcolm Jenkins, who is an amazing football player and an incredibly smart guy but is not someone who has the kind of background or résumé that you would expect to stand up in terms of knowledge to the president of the United States. Just think about how remarkable this moment is in American history.

Thompson: This is the new wave. They’re so willing to cash in their fame and to trade in whatever influence they have. If you get enough of them on the same topic, it’s going to be hard to overlook. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. Malcolm Jenkins, Anquan Boldin—they’re great players. They’re not even the superstars. I think that LeBron tweet was retweeted 600,000 times—

Levin: “U bum.”

Marcus, you wrote a book about Steph Curry, and he’s not somebody that you think of as a guy who wants to make really provocative and out-there political statements. This is thrust upon him around the Warriors not wanting to visit the White House. What do you make of Steph kind of being put into this maelstrom?

Fatsis: Here’s what Steph said: “By acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country and what is accepted and what we turn a blind eye toward. It’s not just the act of not going there. There are things you have to do on the back end to actually push that message into motion.” That’s not something that we’ve heard from Steph Curry before. He’s not the most political guy.

Thompson: He’s not. Steph prefers the Malcolm Jenkins roll, where you sneak off and you’re doing tangible things to effect change but not in the forefront. That’s Steph’s whole thing: I don’t want to be in the discussion, I don’t want to be out front. I want to be in the back, making things happen. But because of who he is, because somebody wrote a dope book on him and he’s winning championships and all that, now he’s got to say something. He’s got to stand up. And I think what we’ve seen with this Trump situation is that he’s comfortable doing it now.

The crazy part was the Warriors gave him an out. They were going with the whole “we’re going to meet and talk about it, we’re going to give it the proper dialogue and discuss.” [Warriors GM] Bob Myers was intent on trying to figure out a way to make it happen. Steph’s like, Yeah, that’s the company line, but I just don’t want to go. He’s a symbol of how these athletes are starting to say, We may not be Muhammad Ali, per se, but it’s a whole lot of us who realize we got some clout, and we could use it.

I think his friendship with Barack Obama helped him, because he’s like, I could call the president and go play golf, so I really don’t have to worry about this dude at all. I’ve never seen him this comfortable being a part of a controversy. All of a sudden, the bullets slow down, and he realized that he was Neo. It was that moment for him.

Levin: Even for a guy like Steph—this gets to the whole stick-to-sports thing—is that Trump has made it so that making no statement is a political statement. Going to the White House is not a neutral move at this point. I’m sorry, Pittsburgh Penguins. There is nothing that Steph could do to avoid this moment, and I think he handled it well and gracefully.

Let’s also note that L.A. Sparks stayed in the locker room in the WNBA finals during the National Anthem.

Thompson: The WNBA have always been in the forefront of this, especially as a collective. They have a unified front on that end. Beginning way back, with “I can’t breathe,” they’ve been on top of it, and they definitely should get some credit for that.

Fatsis: They made a league change its policies. They wore T-shirts during pregame and were fined, talked to the league, and the league turned around and said, We’re not going to punish you for silent quiet protest.