Some critics have said they have no interest in hearing the concerns of NFL players because they are “millionaire athletes.”
Former Republican congressman Joe Walsh (Ill.) tweeted as much Sunday when he called the NFL protests “b-------" and the athletes “ungrateful.”
And if there was any hope that the White House had not reduced these American citizens to their economic and professional identities, CNN's Jim Acosta tweeted otherwise.
“Trump adviser tells me POTUS is 'winning the cultural war … just made millionaire sport athletes his new HRC.”
Just to be clear: The president of the United States equated the football players to his presidential rival, whom he called the devil.
There's a lot going on here — including a possibly willful misunderstanding of the origins of former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick's protest. None of the athletes are taking a knee during the national anthem because they believe the United States has a problem with discriminating against wealthy people or successful athletes.
The men have repeatedly expressed their frustration with how people of color are treated in this country. Here's what San Francisco 49er Eric Reid — a former teammate of Kaepernick's — wrote in the New York Times earlier this week:
In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police. I felt furious, hurt and hopeless. I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what or how to do it. All I knew for sure is that I wanted it to be as respectful as possible.
We spoke at length about many of the issues that face our community, including systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality and the criminal justice system. We also discussed how we could use our platform, provided to us by being professional athletes in the N.F.L., to speak for those who are voiceless.
Reid, as did Kaepernick numerous times before, said his actions were to draw attention to the discrimination people of color face — specifically those who do not have the fame, wealth and platform to get the attention of those who have the power to implement change.
Reid said his protests were about acts of violence committed against people such as Alton Sterling, a man who sold CDs outside a convenience store, a story that held personal significance for Reid. Sterling, 37, was fatally shot in 2016 while being restrained by police officers in Baton Rouge.
“The posts on social media deeply disturbed me, but one in particular brought me to tears: the killing of Alton Sterling in my hometown Baton Rouge, La,” he wrote. “This could have happened to any of my family members who still live in the area.”
But here's the thing: Even if the men were talking about themselves, that wouldn't weaken their argument that racism is an issue in the United States, because being wealthy and athletic does not protect black people from discrimination.
Wealthy athletes of color have repeatedly shared stories of how they've been treated differently from their white counterparts despite being a member of “the 1 percent.”
Tennis great Serena Williams had been the subject of racist comments — even while playing her sport.
“Growing up, I was told I couldn’t accomplish my dreams because I was a woman and, more so, because of the color of my skin. In every stage of my life, I’ve had to learn to stand up for myself and speak out,” she wrote in Fortune magazine. “I have been treated unfairly, I’ve been disrespected by my male colleagues and — in the most painful times — I’ve been the subject of racist remarks on and off the tennis court.”
The home of NBA star LeBron James was vandalized when someone spray-painted the n-word on his front gate.
“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough,” he said in a news conference. “We've got a long way to go, for us as a society and for us as African Americans, until we feel equal in America.”
And golf legend Tiger Woods has spoken about being discriminated against in golf clubs, even after winning the Masters.
“I knew none of this meant, necessarily, things would change dramatically for minorities in golf. I hoped my win would encourage them to play, or to chase their dreams whatever they were,” he wrote in “The 1997 Masters: My Story.”
“It would have been naive of me to think my win would mean the end of ‘the look’ when a person from any minority [group] walked into some golf clubs, especially the game’s private clubs,” Woods wrote. “I only hoped my win, and how I won, might put a dent in the way people perceived black people.
“I hoped my win would open some doors for minorities,” he added. “My biggest hope, though, though, was we could one day see one another as people and people alone. I wanted us to be color blind. Twenty years later, that has yet to happen.”
The disbelief of NFL players speaks to several things. One of them is an unwillingness — or at best, an inability — to put the primary identity of “millionaire athletes” in something other than what they do and how much they make. Obviously these people are wealthy, but they are also people of color, parents, and humans with interests, passions and experiences beyond their sport.
The pushback tells us something else about this country. Many people have the false idea that money is a savior, capable of protecting those who have it from all of life's uglier challenges.
Most black athletes will acknowledge that how people treat them changed as their wealth and fame grew. But no matter how successful they became, no amount of money could keep some people from reducing their identity to their race.
Sheila Johnson, who owns a stake in the NBA's Wizards, the NHL's Capitals and the WNBA's Mystics, told CNN's Tanzina Vega that wealth doesn't protect you from discrimination. In fact, it introduces you to new types of racial discrimination.
“There is a loneliness that very wealthy African Americans do feel in their lives,” she said. “No matter how much money you have as an African American, you're still an African American.”