It was the silence and simplicity of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality that make the response now so striking. Kaepernick’s decision to quietly take a knee during the anthem, to recognize those who still struggle for equality before the law, has caused him to be all but blacklisted from the NFL, blasted by right-wing commentators for perceived disrespect, and condemned by Republican politicians, including the president of the United States.
For Donald Trump, who ran on a platform of stoking white racial resentment, the attacks were predictable. What’s more striking is that the NFL has decided to oblige. On Wednesday, team owners voted to fine teams whose players do not stand for the anthem. Those who want to kneel can stay in the locker room during pregame ceremonies. If the league can’t persuade Kaepernick and others like him to give up their protests, then it will try to compel them into standing, or at least, hide them away from view and relieve the pressure placed by the president.
This entire spectacle—of a white, racially demagogic president demanding punishment of protesting black players—is part of a history of rebuke and outrage against black athletes who challenged American racism, like Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith. It also echoes an even older dynamic in American life: the country’s fraught relationship to black political activity. From his attacks on Barack Obama to his broadsides against Kaepernick, Donald Trump has always been on the side of those who see a threat in black advocacy and power.
Trump built his whole political brand on attacking prominent black Americans as illegitimate holders of status and influence, so Kaepernick was a natural target. To attack him—and other kneeling players—was to play the old hits, priming and harnessing the anger of those who view these vocal blacks as ungrateful and presumptuous—in other words, uppity. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired,’ ” Trump told a sea of white supporters at a campaign-style rally in Alabama last September.
After the NFL announced its new rule, Trump voiced his support and even floated exile for players who don’t conform. “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade. “You shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
Trump might speak the language of patriotism and respect, but what he wants is obedience. If players won’t bend their knees to his will—if they act as free citizens and not supplicants—then, by his lights, they forfeit their place in this country. The NFL has indulged the attitudes of an authoritarian, leaning further into the jingoism and militarism that it has cultivated for decades.
The president’s attacks are part of an old strategy against advocates of black equality. Explaining the backlash against black political activity in the years after Reconstruction, W.E.B Du Bois described the limits placed on blacks who wanted to survive, much less thrive: “Negroes who wanted work must not dabble in politics. Negroes who wanted to increase their income must not agitate the Negro problem. Positions of influence were only open to those Negroes who were certified as being ‘safe and sane,’ and their careers were closely scrutinized and passed upon.” When a conservative commentator like Laura Ingraham tells NBA player LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” after he criticized the president, she is reaching back to something quite old in the nation’s history.
Perhaps due to the demographics of its fan base—which skews both younger and less white than the NFL’s—the NBA has taken a different approach to both police violence and political expression. In January, Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown was arrested after he was questioned for a potential parking violation. Police quickly dropped charges, and on Wednesday, the Milwaukee Police Department released body camera footage of the arrest, which shows multiple officers wrestling Brown to the ground and using a stun gun on him. Not only has Brown been outspoken about the incident, but the Bucks also released a statement in support of their colleague: “The abuse and intimidation that Sterling experienced at the hands of Milwaukee Police was shameful and inexcusable. Sterling has our full support as he shares his story and takes action to provide accountability.”
In fairness, it was just last year that the NFL had a similar response to an incident involving one of its own players. In September, after Michael Bennett was allegedly profiled and harassed by police in Las Vegas, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Bennett, who often sat during the anthem last season, “represents the best of the NFL” and “that the issues Michael has been raising deserve serious attention from all of our leaders in every community.” Goodell went on to say the league would “support Michael and all NFL players in promoting mutual respect between law enforcement and the communities they loyally serve and fair and equal treatment under the law.” But with the president ratcheting up the pressure throughout the fall, and NFL viewership reportedly on the decline, the league appears to have changed its tune.
There is already backlash to the NFL’s new rule. New York Jets chairman Christopher Johnson told reporters that he would not discipline a player who protests and would pay the league’s fine. The NFL Players Association announced it would challenge any aspect of the policy that it found to be in violation of its collective bargaining agreement. “The vote by NFL club CEOs today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Chairman of the NFL’s Management Council John Mara about the principles, values and patriotism of our League,” it said in a statement.
This space—what players can and cannot do on the field—is still contested and the resolution is far from clear. What can be said, however, is that the NFL’s move—an attempt to satisfy the president’s demands for conformity—is a dangerous attack on political expression, even if it’s ultimately fair play in the eyes of the law.
There are real threats to free speech in this country. But the culprits aren’t college students or overzealous young activists, they are those who use wealth and power—or control of the state itself—to punish political dissenters and advocates for justice. While this abuse may begin by targeting the most unpopular groups and individuals, it’s rare in history that it stops there.