The NFL’s first preseason games were played Thursday night, the first time the players took the field after a summer of debate and rule changes over player protests. Multiple players protested in various forms, which predictably prompted a Friday morning tweetstorm from President Trump.
Trump has traditionally ignored addressing the reasons for the protests, which began in 2016 in response to racial injustice and police brutality. The latest round of critical tweets included a new line of attack: That the protesting players were mostly “unable to define” the reasons they were demonstrating.
A charitable reading of that would indicate the president has simply ignored all the evidence to the contrary. Another possibility is he is making a presumption about the mostly African American players' intelligence.
The truth is NFL players have been explaining the reasons for their protest at length, on many platforms, and in pretty clear terms, for years. We have compiled a few of their explanations below.
1. San Francisco 49er Eric Reid’s 2017 op-ed in the New York Times:
It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.
It should go without saying that I love my country and I’m proud to be an American. But, to quote James Baldwin, ‘exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.'
2. Philadelphia Eagle Malcolm Jenkins in a 2017 Washington Post op-ed:
We want to lend our voices to changing this flawed system, which is crippling our nation and especially affects people who are poor or of color. We have gone on ride-alongs with police, visited Capitol Hill and talked with policy advocates and grass-roots organizers. We’ve learned first-hand about the problems we face. We’ve also learned that we aren’t alone. There are plenty of Republicans and Democrats, community leaders and members of law enforcement who agree.
3. Former 49er Colin Kaepernick in 2016 after he originated the protests, to the NFL:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
There have been interviews with major outlets, social media posts and other venues where NFL players have communicated why they use their platform as NFL players to bring attention to the prevalence of racism and police brutality in the United States. But what has not happened is Trump clearly demonstrating he understands the reasons behind the protests.
In June, April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders if Trump, who has claimed the protest insults those serving in the military, was even aware of the reasons for the protest he repeatedly criticizes.
“There’s an underlying issue, and it keeps going, about disrespect of the flag and soldiers,” Ryan said then. “There are black and brown soldiers that fight in the military as well, who feel that taking a knee, bringing attention to police-involved shootings, is something that this White House should deal with. Is the president aware that taking the knee is about police-involved shootings?”
Sanders’s response doubled down but did not acknowledge the reasons Ryan laid out. “The president has made his position crystal clear on this topic,” she said. “He feels strongly that standing for our national anthem is something that matters to what makes our country special and unique and what sets us apart. He’s not going to waiver on that. He’s not going to apologize for it.”
Yes, it is clear Trump is not going to back down from attacking the NFL players who are protesting over racial issues. It is not clear if he actually knows why the protests are happening. At this point, what appears to be clear to many Americans is the president has little interest in learning why so many people believe racism in America is worth calling attention to.