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How the NFL watered down Colin Kaepernick’s protest

Kneeling during the anthem was about racial justice. Until the league got involved.

Players from several NFL teams protested President Trump’s recent comments before and during the national anthem on game day Sunday. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

It shouldn’t be odd to see Daniel Snyder on an NFL sideline before a game, but it was Sunday night, as his team met the Oakland Raiders. Locking arms with his players during the national anthem after President Trump assailed athletes who take a knee to bring attention to police violence, the owner of Washington’s NFL franchise was taking part in what was ostensibly a protest. That was odd for many reasons: Snyder supported Trump’s campaign and donated $1 million to his inauguration committee. Confronted again with the bigotry inherent in his team’s name, he has casually rebuffed those petitioning for a mascot that fits in an equal America. Men like Snyder make for unlikely freedom fighters.

That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be welcome as one. But at a moment when wealthy white men banding together to fight white supremacy might actually have an impact, Snyder and several of his fellow team owners opted for an empty gesture. Standing between cornerbacks Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland, who are both black, Snyder had to know that he wasn’t actually protesting anything. This past weekend, the NFL took an opportunity to throw its weight to aid the cause of racial justice and turned it into a bland exhibition of corporate “unity.” What began with Colin Kaepernick taking a knee for a specific purpose mutated into generic displays bereft of any meaningful message.

In a different life, I worked for years as an NFL Films producer — making what our beloved boss, the late Steve Sabol, called “football movies.” I know a good marketing gambit for the league when I see one. We’ll surely see poignant images, expertly photographed, of players linking arms and looking stoic. They know the pain of institutional racism intimately, despite their sudden wealth. The NFL is about 70 percent black; those men understand a lot about what comes with looking the way we do in America. But the images, particularly with billionaires like Snyder needling their way into them, serve to dilute the specific meaning of Kaepernick’s protest. Even if these players linking arms are down for the cause, they put themselves out there to be packaged by a league that has never truly embraced Kaepernick’s movement, as their bosses sell the brand instead of calling for justice. The branding worked; look at this week’s cover of Sports Illustrated, complete with a photo illustration of 10 people linking arms (but not Kaepernick), and the tag line “A Nation Divided, Sports United.”

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Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles says addressing racism in the criminal justice system will require much more than taking a knee. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Trump, of course, had something to do with this. Trump started his campaign against the nation’s most popular sports league by calling Kaepernick and anyone who joined his protest a “son of a b—-” during what was supposed to be a stump speech for Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), who polls show may lose a primary Tuesday despite the president’s endorsement. The next morning, the president also disinvited NBA champion Stephen Curry from the White House — though Curry had already said he wasn’t coming, u bum. Trump’s reckless ridicule of NFL rules designed to protect against head injuries may have stung most of all in the league office; it’s bad PR for an organization already reeling from the revelation last week that the late Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end who committed suicide before his sentencing for a murder conviction, had a severe case of the degenerative brain disease CTE, the same one eating many NFL alumni alive. (The league plans to “vigorously” fight a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Hernandez’s 4-year-old daughter, Avielle.)

On Twitter, the president castigated players who protest and any league official, including commissioner Roger Goodell, who didn’t agree with him. (He was still at it Tuesday morning.) Like everything, Trump tried to make this all about him, trying to meld the flag and what we think about as America with his persona and declaring any protest at all to be unacceptably disrespectful. In doing so, he perverted the meaning of Kaepernick’s action, turning it into an affront to Trump’s macho conception of patriotism rather than a demand that police stop killing black people.

The president has actively promoted police violence in the past, but this weekend, he made a point to rebuke those who speak freely against it. So dozens of NFL players, nearly all of them black, rebuked Trump in return, many more than usual kneeling or sitting during the anthem Sunday. Rejecting the president along with the injustice was fitting — he is the duly elected representative of white supremacy, the same man who had talked about them as if they were enslaved combatants fighting in front of the fireplace for the enjoyment of the master’s company. Given the rhetorical violence Trump visited upon black NFL players, though, why weren’t more players kneeling? And the only team owner to kneel was Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, but he did it before the anthem was sung, then stood arm in arm with his entire team for the song. (Fans in Arizona still booed when they knelt, further clarifying that the offense taken by opponents of the protest has nothing to do with the flag, anthem or patriotism.)

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The original protest was all about symbolism, as many civil rights actions are and should be. Eric Reid, a San Francisco 49ers safety who knelt with Kaepernick, wrote in the New York Times on Monday that “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” The intention was not disrespect, but they were still doing what they could to make the right people uncomfortable.

But once the league decided to launch its own NFL-branded “resistance,” that wasn’t on the agenda. What about a team standing with arms locked, doing the very thing Kaepernick deliberately did not do, makes anyone uncomfortable? Some players, such as Seattle Seahawks Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin, issued blistering condemnations of the president’s remarks. But what teams do together speaks loudest, and most showed little to indicate that they’re in this fight beyond this past weekend. The clear message was that the NFL would like some nice visuals out of all this hubbub, and maybe a little First Amendment magic dust on its logo. There was no sign that the league wanted to take a substantive stand on police violence or, heaven forbid, have to give Kaepernick a job.

Because the NFL has treated Kaepernick badly from the start, and that didn’t change this weekend. When he first took a knee during the 2016 preseason, all the league had to say was that “players are encouraged but not required to stand during the National Anthem.” If football was a factory, this would be a notice pinned to the corkboard by the water cooler, notifying workers of a new office rule. Now that the irascible president has trained his fire on the league itself, including its commissioner and many of the same team owners who backed his candidacy, they snap to attention. But don’t let them get away with pretending to support their players who follow Kaepernick’s lead, targeted by Trump with vulgarities. Some owners have actively discouraged such protest in the past. Instead, they issued condemnations couched in flowery formalities about “unity” and whatnot. Since when is making “good trouble,” as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) terms effective civil rights protest, about unifying people? The league that was afraid to back Kaepernick’s constitutional and legal demonstrations still has no room for him on its rosters — but it has the ability to co-opt his protest, watering it down into a more easily digestible product, stripped free of the nutrients that society needs.

No true protest assuages those who are already comfortable. Athletes, especially those who wear a helmet for a living, must know that they have limited windows for communicating their truths to the American public. Protests during the anthem are their best avenue. They know that there are many people in America who don’t give a damn about black people outside of those three hours when their team is on TV. Last weekend, at least for those linking arms, that time was annexed, repackaged and sold.

The late reggae legend Peter Tosh foretold all this, singing in his classic “Equal Rights” that “Everyone is crying out for peace, yes … None is crying out for justice.” The NFL needs to grasp that difference.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Aaron Hernandez’s daughter Avielle as Arielle.

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