Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barrie) Times Argus

September 30the, 2017

This Just In 10


Before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and ‘65; before the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schools in 1953; before President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order to begin the process of integrating the U.S. military; the most important civil rights event in half a century already taken place.

It was not a law of the Congress, a ruling by the Supreme Court or a proclamation by the White House. It happened on the playing fields of what was then America’s favorite pastime. I’m referring of course to the integration of major league baseball in 1947.

It did not come easily. Much of the fan base bitterly opposed the idea. So were more than a few of the white players. The object of their scorn was the first African American to be allowed to play big league baseball - Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

 No person should ever have to be subjected to the kind of verbal abuse and intimidation that Robinson received almost daily and for more than one season. But with the quality of his play and more importantly, the strength and dignity of his character, Robinson ultimately prevailed. In doing so he changed baseball, eventually other professional sports - and America itself. It was a monumental accomplishment.

This contribution of sports to civil rights, should be kept in mind during the current debate over whether National Football League players should be allowed to make political statements during the national anthem. 

Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, set off a minor furor last year when he decided to kneel during the anthem to protest police violence against minorities. A few players did something similar throughout last season – mostly to negative public reaction. Kaepernick himself is no longer in the league (just why is not clear- his talent or his politics?) In any case, there seemed little interest in such protests this year.

Enter Donald Trump. During a rambling speech in Alabama, he went on the attack. “Wouldn’t you love to see of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag say, ‘get that son-of-a-bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that.” (There was more, but I am sure you heard it ad nauseam.}

However, this time, Trump may have miscalculated. It is true that the 32 NFL owners, many of them billionaires, did indeed contribute some seven million dollars to Trump’s election and his inauguration. But one way or another, virtually all of them, pushed back and supported their players. And at all the subsequent games since, players, coaches and in some cases owners showed their solidarity against Trump’s denigrating remarks. Even Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones, who had issued no statement, knelt briefly with his players before the anthem Monday night and stood with them arm in arm while it was played. (Trump tweeted Wednesday, that Jones assured him in future the Cowboys will stand for the anthem.)

Trump now claims his clearly racial attack on professional black athletes, “…has nothing to do with race…This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.”

As with most everything this president says, or tweets, this too is untrue. His demand that NFL owners should “fire” any player who kneels rather than stands during the national anthem, has everything to do with race. We know it. He knows it. And especially that roughly thirty percent of Americans who are part of his base knows it - and loves it – which is why he said it. He knows they resent “uppity” African American sports super stars who make a lot of money. And what better way to stoke that resentment than by questioning the protesting player’s patriotism.

Whether Trump is a racist is beside the point. What isn’t, is that throughout his political life, he has shamelessly played the race card. His years long “birther” campaign alleging President Barack Obama was not born in the United States challenged the legitimacy of America’s first African American president. It was not true but it helped build Trump’s eventual voter base among those who wanted it to be true.  And of course, we know Trump launched his presidential campaign with an unprecedented and vicious attack on Hispanics.

 But while it may play to his base, Trump is on shaky ground by calling protests involving the flag a firing offense. In fact, actual flag burning was determined by a Supreme Court ruling in 1989 as a First Amendment right of freedom of speech and expression. And by the way, one of the five justices who decided this case was conservative icon, and a “great judge”, according to Trump, the late Antonin Scalia.  

Throughout the discussion of these issues the claim of “freedom of speech” is often invoked. It is implicitly. But I fear many people do not realize that this First Amendment right only protects citizens from any government law which would infringe upon those rights. Private businesses can and often do set their own restrictive rules on employees.

So NFL owners could decide to ban all protests during the anthem, or any other time. (There may be some protection against this in the players union agreement with the league). But the point is, these guys didn’t get to be billionaires by being stupid. They know that 70% of the players, including many of the biggest stars, are African American. And the last thing they want to do is ignite racial warfare in their own locker rooms.

There may be another factor. Unlike most business tycoons, most NFL owners have spent years interacting with black people. Men such as New England Patriots owner Robert Craft count many of these players among their close personal friends. And even though Kraft reportedly gave one million dollars for the Trump inaugural, his critique of Trump’s tirade, was among the sharpest and seemingly heartfelt, of all the owners. Still, issues of race are never simple, so this story is not over.

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