We think of sports and the arts – as House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described them to “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd – as the great unifiers.
That’s partly because we expect athletes and artists of every ilk to entertain us in a manner devoid of politics. The thinking goes that since artists and athletes make a lot of dough – well, at least those in the popular sports and arts do – they should “play” and keep their mouths otherwise shut.
But what happens when politics interjects itself into sports and the arts?
Faced with the certainty that Repeal and Replace (of Obamacare) is DOA – yeah, we know, yet again – President Donald J. Trump chose to act like the man who’s been dressed down at work and takes it out on his family at home: He went after sports activists.
That’s because sports, like the arts, offer so-called soft targets. It’s a lot easier to criticize former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for igniting a movement when he began taking a knee during the National Anthem last year to protest racism in America than it is to say how we’re going to up our game in – oh, I don’t know, a bipartisan approach to health care, infrastructure and tax reform; the global response to climate change; a diplomatic solution to crises in North Korea and the Middle East; and relief efforts in Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in the wake of three killer hurricanes.
Speaking Friday in Huntsville, Ala., where he is seeking to influence a senatorial election, and on Twitter Saturday, Trump said athletes who take a knee during the National Anthem are “sons of bitches” who should be fired. He also took the NFL to task for softening its approach to the gladiatorial game. (This after we just learned that former New England Patriot and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez, who hanged himself in prison, was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, associated with football concussions and sub-concussions.)
This has led to a firestorm in the NFL and the NBA, with Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar LeBron James calling the president a “bum” and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors foregoing the ritual White House victory lap. (The Warriors – whose star, Stephen Curry, is not a Trump fan – seem to have been disinvited anyway.)
OK, I’m not a fan of gesture politics, name-calling, shunning or other forms of social ostracism. They lead to misunderstanding and a lack of cooperation. James shouldn’t have called the president a bum, but where does the president get off using a curse term to describe protesting players?
Kaepernick’s gesture may have been off-putting to some, but how did his peaceful – and, some might say, reverential – protest come in for condemnation and not men dashing their brains out on the field? To say nothing of the free presidential pass given to white supremacists carrying torches in Charlottesville, Va., disturbing the peace and the public’s peace of mind. Where are our values?
On Sunday’s game at Wembley Stadium in London – the first game of the day – players from the Baltimore Ravens and home team Jacksonville Jaguars took a knee or stood for the Anthem, depending on their desires. But they all did one thing: They linked arms.
They seemed to be expressing what Voltaire – who lived in the Age of Enlightenment with the Founding Fathers – once said: “I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
That is what the American flag means. That is what the Anthem really stands for. That is what our soldiers fought and died for.
There is a difference between this free speech and hate speech that uses violent words and gestures and makes losers of us all.
It’s time that the president of the United States of America learned this difference.