Well… that was interesting.
While at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, a city without an NFL franchise, Supreme Leader Trump turned his attention to the league… instead of Puerto Rico, or Mexico, or Florida, or Texas… and said the following: “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, he’s fired,”.
Let’s ignore for just a second that the President of the United States called protestors “sons of bitches”, a term which should be totally beneath the office in a public address. This is the second time in as many weeks that the administration has tried to use their influence to get private sector employees fired. I get that firing people is a part of Donald’s TV persona and that he’s not concerned about much more than ratings, but this is well beyond the scope of the presidency. Trump then took to Twitter to suggest that low ratings would put an end to the protests. Think about that for a second; the American president essentially calling for a boycott of a multibillion dollar, purely American industry. A boycott of several of his supporters’ companies. This should have been unthinkable but very little is with this president! It shouldn’t have shocked anyone that NFL owners, probably the only group in the country with as much ego as the president, would not take kindly to being told what to do. So the league owners, including some of the group that openly contributed to Trump’s campaign, came out in favor of the players’ rights to express themselves. Mind you, this had nothing to do with the players’ rights to express themselves. This was a pissing contest between billionaires.
So Saturday night and Sunday morning, there was talk that there would be league-wide protests. Of course, this meant the question on everyone’s mind was “would I end my boycott?”. (“Everyone” here meaning one or two of my friends). While I was very interested in what was going to happen Sunday morning, I had no intention of ending my boycott. None of this changed the blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick. If anything, it diluted Kaep’s protest. Instead of being strictly about police brutality and the injustices experienced in communities of color, it became about Trump, the national anthem, and the flag. Essentially, Trump hijacked and reframed the protest. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what many NFL players did yesterday. Many took a knee during the anthem. Even several singers of the national anthem took a knee during the singing. I thought that was especially moving. That said, the “why” of the protest got muddled by Trump’s interference and I’m not so sure that wasn’t exactly what he wanted.
I have to take a moment to address what my team did. The Steelers announced before the game that they would not be taking the field for the national anthem at all. My initial thought was “Wow! That is a powerful gesture!”. Then I read the comments of Mike Tomlin who essentially said that they were doing this to stay out of it. “We’re not going to play politics,” Coach Tomlin declared. That was disappointing. Then there was this piece by Damon Young, suggesting that Tomlin keeping the team off the field was a “black ass Judo” maneuver:
But, regardless of his words, the act itself still seemed like an unambiguous fuck you to Trump. The optic message was one of defiance, and that’ll be the prevailing takeaway from it. Tomlin is no fool, and I’m sure he knew how not participating in the anthem would look, which makes me wonder if his words were intentionally misleading; the same type of professional shape-shifting and racial judo black people perform each day to defy the system while keeping our jobs and our sanity intact.
The Steelers’ actions had even more the look of protest when it was revealed that Allejandro Villanueva, offensive lineman and the only active military personnel in the league (army ranger) went without his team on to the sidelines, placed his hand on his heart and sang along with the anthem. With this gesture, the team that was apparently “100 unified” was both by the media and the fans divided into the patriotic (Villanueva) and the “ungrateful” (Tomlin and the rest).
While I tend to side with Young’s assessment… I think the Rooneys (strongly democratic) and Tomlin (open Hilary supporter) are media savvy enough to know how their actions would be interpreted… I would have loved to have seen a more clear, unambiguous message from my favorite franchise. “Injustice is real, protest is patriotic, you can’t celebrate the achievements of black lives on the field while ignoring the circumstances of black lives in their neighborhoods”. That’s probably asking for too much, but it would have been nice and it is what the moment called for. Instead, the team and much of the league went for the more ambiguous sign of “unity”. Unity to what end? Are they united in their dislike of being belittled by the president? Are they united in their desire to win a football game (which the Steelers did not… winning would have saved Tomlin and crew a lot of criticism, methinks), were they united in their willingness to stand behind each other’s right to free speech, despite differences of opinion? “Unity” isn’t necessarily “solidarity”. The big issue I have with what happened yesterday is that it muddled the message. Kaepernick took a knee to protest the killing of black bodies in American streets. Trump’s interference and the myriad of responses to those comments made it about everything from patriotism to the role of politics in sports. What happened yesterday is important to the extent that it brings us back to the original movement that Kaep started. Gestures of “team unity” do a disservice to that movement.
Part of the sermon my colleague Nancy preached in worship yesterday was about a conference she attended on Christian unity. I take it from her sermon that she and many others felt like some of the conversations were a waste of time. I tend to agree. I don’t think Christian unity is a worthwhile goal at this particular moment. The fact that someone else claims to be pro-Jesus, does not make us allies if they are unwilling to do the work of justice. I would much rather spend time with like-minded Jews, Muslims, Atheists, and Humanists than Christians who proclaim Christ while turning their backs on the poor and excluding those they deem to be sinners. I feel the same way about the idea of being “united” as a country. If our unity means my silence, than no thank you! Unity is a lovely sounding goal, but my first allegiance is to the marginalized and oppressed because that is whose side I believe God to be on. If our unity serves empire than I have betrayed those who are hurting and our unity is simply another tool to victimize.
The NFL is a media giant which is why what happened yesterday garnered so much attention. In thinking of who to highlight this week, I thought about the impact of the media and I came across this fantastic article about a group of black women who are making big moves in the industry. Some names I recognized, Angela Rye is amazing!, but some I never heard and didn’t realize how much influence they wielded. It’s easy to imagine that these women are a driving force in why conversations of representation are happening much more frequently than they once were. And reading through the comments on the article, I would be remiss if I didn’t also highlight Jamie Broadnax, the founder of Black Girl Nerds. BGN is a fantastic podcast highlighting the work of people of color in film, television, and comics. Jamie is also the co-founder of Universal Fan Con, a diversity focused convention that will have its debut in Baltimore in April of 2018. I think it is a fair bet that I will be there!