I’m heartbroken that, once again, the Nationals didn’t advance in the playoffs this season. Yet, I know as much about sports as I do about astrophysics. “You watch ballgames like a poet,” a friend tactfully said after I admitted to being clueless about what a shortstop does. Football and other sports aren’t usually on my radar, and I normally think of athletes as entertainers rather than as citizens with political views.
Recently, my feelings about sports have changed. The NFL National Anthem controversy has altered how I see athletes and sporting events. Baseball and football games, tennis matches and other athletic competitions are highly entertaining. What’s more fun than munching chips and salsa, drinking a few beers and watching the Super Bowl? Yet, to view sports as only entertainment is to miss how intricately it is linked to politics.
For the past year, led by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, some NFL players have knelt in protest during the anthem. They’ve taken a knee to highlight the unfairness and racism in our country’s criminal justice system. Some 49ers protested on Oct. 15 during the anthem at a game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. In a notably political stunt, Vice President Mike Pence walked out on Oct. 8 when some of the 49ers knelt in protest during the anthem in a game against the Indianapolis Colts. “I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” Pence (who had been ordered by President Donald J. Trump to leave the game) tweeted.
Trump has called the protesting players “sons of bitches,” said that team owners should fire them for taking a knee and tweeted that the NFL should no longer receive tax breaks because it doesn’t respect “our Anthem, Flag and Country.”
Racism underlies the patriotic gloss in Trump’s tweets. Trump “did not want Blacks living in his buildings or handling his money,” American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality wrote on the ACLU website, “his encouragement of police brutality and championing of unconstitutional stop and frisk policies are not race neutral.”
Why do I, a white lesbian who watches the Super Bowl for the cool ads, believe that all of us, hetero or queer, should care about these protests? Being able to peacefully protest is a constitutional right for citizens of the United States. Trump’s tweets threaten our First Amendment right of free expression. “Players have a platform and it’s his right to do that,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said when Kaepernick began his protests last fall.
But Trump’s tweets are having a chilling impact. Trump “has changed that whole paradigm of what protest is,” Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, told The Palm Beach Post.
Changing public opinion now, he added, “makes it incumbent for players” to stand during the anthem.
When the right of free expression for one group is threatened it is diminished for everyone. The queer community has a history of achieving social change through peaceful protest. Any threat to the First Amendment should be a red flag for us.
Historically and, even now, LGBTQ people have experienced police brutality and harassment. Think of entrapment, police raids on bars (Stonewall) and the unjust treatment of transgender people. How can we not support NFL players who are protesting the racism and injustice of our justice system toward people of color? Who isn’t appalled that Trump is using racism and football as he’s used hysteria over transgender people and bathrooms to rally his base?
Let’s respect our country by supporting the right to peacefully protest injustice.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.