Colin Kaepernick led the way in protesting racism and mistreatment of black people at the hands of policeColin Kaepernick Facebook

American schoolchildren are taught to stand, hand to heart, during their daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. Over time, this ritual becomes entrenched. At the high school I attended, the few who chose to flout the rules, more through an amorphous sense of teenage rebellion than any adherence to a cause, had to endure the withering glares of devotees and the discomfort of the rest. But that was the point: to make one’s resistance felt. Displays of patriotism are serious business in America.

When NFL players, starting with Colin Kaepernick in 2016, began to kneel or sit in protest during the American national anthem, they knew it would draw ire, and some of them surely felt pangs of transgression reinforced by years of habituation. Their reservations were outweighed by the urgency of the message: a cry against police violence and racism in America. For the sake of the conversation, they were willing to court controversy. Roughly half of Americans reacted negatively. Some, including President Trump, reacted vehemently.

“The public discussion of the players’ cause has dwindled to a few cursory comments in a handful of articles. Trump and the NFL management dominate the stories”

It’s curious that Americans have maintained the capacity to be so shocked by these kinds of demonstrations. US athletes have protested during the national anthem since at least the 1968 Olympics, and the tradition, outside of athletics, extends well beyond that. It’s as American as apple pie; as I suppose, is the backlash, but I’m glad that it still upsets us. It gets our attention, and the NFL protesters, unlike some of the desk-chair Jacobins in American high schools, have a pressing point to make. It’s a cause worth startling us for.

Sadly, since Kaepernick’s initial statements, the players have hardly had a chance to make their case. Throats have been cleared, gavels have been rapped, but the heckler in the back won’t stop shouting, and the rest of us are beginning to forget who’s at the lectern. Trump has intervened with daily Twitter invectives and has goaded the owners of the football teams with insinuations of weakness and ineptitude – a classic refrain from a master of the form. Now we are reeling at the spectacle. The president’s criticisms of NFL management represent exactly the kind of racism that spurred the protests in the first place. He said of the owners: “I think they’re afraid of their players [...] they’ve got to be tough.” This attitude of fear and control is the same that allows Americans to countenance police shootings.

The problem with Trump’s involvement in the debate is not that he opposes the protests, or even that he’s taken a stance at all. It’s that he’s redirected the public’s attention by reframing the issue as a failure of management and of the protesters’ patriotism. This is not just patronising to the players, it distracts from the fundamental issues that their protests have sought to address. The public discussion of the players’ cause has dwindled to a few cursory comments in a handful of articles. Trump and the NFL management dominate the stories.


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This is the president’s great talent: causing distraction and strife. The same misdirection that won him the election has allowed him to skirt any real discussion of racism while simultaneously undermining the players’ cause. It would have been acceptable for him to acknowledge the cause while disputing the methods. It would have even been better, in some very broad sense, for him to reject the cause, to assert that no problem of racism or police violence exists in America. That would have at least made his stance clear and open to argument. But those are naïve hopes. His choice was to attack and distract. In the game of attention, Trump is louder and shriller than most.

Trump has wrestled the conversation away from those who did the work to start it, likely the only type of wrestling he can manage with a group of determined NFL players. But their determination should not falter. They must take back the podium, cut through the inane chatter about standing or kneeling or the strength of NFL management, and continue to remind us of what the protests are really about: racism in America. Otherwise, they’ll have knelt for naught

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