In the wake of Donald Trump spitting profane insults last weekend at what had been barely a handful of protesting NFL players, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan stood on a sideline before the league’s Week 3 kickoff game at London’s Wembley Stadium, arms locked with his entire team and coaching staff as the national anthem played. He did so ostensibly in opposition to Trump’s attack upon his players’ freedom of expression. It was hailed as the first demonstration during the national anthem that included a league owner.
And it was a bad precedent.
Indeed, by this week’s final game Monday night, after several other owners and teams throughout Sunday mimicked Khan and his Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined arms with his players and coaches in Arizona before playing the Cardinals. They dropped in unison to a knee, but only for a few seconds. Then they rose, and stood — before a single bar of the anthem was struck.
It wasn’t a protest, explained Jones, who spoke for his players. Instead, said the billionaire owner, who previously expressed complete disdain for the act of using the anthem and flag as platforms for protest, it was a show of unity. A kumbaya moment.
“Our players wanted to make a statement about unity and we wanted to make a statement about equality,” Jones said postgame. “They were very much aware that statement, when made or when attempted to be made in and a part of the recognition of our flag, cannot only lead to criticism but also controversy.”
So in a span of less than 48 hours, what quarterback Colin Kaepernick birthed in the preseason of 2016 as a protest against the unchecked extrajudicial killing of black men in this country was co-opted by mostly white owners into dinner theater that everyone could digest. Protest defanged. It was the sort of show that the owners who favored presidential candidate, Donald Trump, whom they helped elect with tens of millions in campaign contributions, could twist into some sort of celebration of flag and country.
“Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country,” the petulant president tweeted on Sunday of similar displays. “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”
The worst ratings are for Trump’s governance, of course, on health care, education, immigration, etc. But let us all talk about First Amendment rights of football players.
What black NFL players did unwittingly was make themselves victims of the worst that white allyship in the black struggle — or wealthy allyship in a working-class struggle — could offer. It all but usurped the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is the foundation of Kaepernick’s remonstration. It made protest, which is supposed to make people prickly, palatable, instead.
Black players shouldn’t have sought their owners’ input anymore than they would have asked for their counsel during a losing streak. They should have left them in their lane. This was a players-only matter, a black players matter to be most precise. The owners’ interest was not in the dignity of their players, but in the bottom line of their business.
What we witnessed last weekend was a couple hundred of Kaepernick’s former teammates and opponents finally stand down as he did, but not necessarily for the same reason. As Denver Broncos star linebacker Von Miller explained: “Me and my teammates, we felt like President Trump’s speech was an assault on our most cherished right, freedom of speech. Collectively, we felt like we had to do something for this game, if not any other game, if not in the past, in the future. At this moment in time, we felt like, as a team, we had to do something. We couldn’t just let things go.”
As Miller alluded, he and most players who protested over the weekend did so only because a president, who dismissed them as a “son of a bitch” and wished the owners would pare them from their multimillion dollar payrolls for disobeying nationalistic tradition, challenged their masculinity.
Similarly, the owners only found reason to join the protesting players after their revenue base — ticket buyers and television contracts — was threatened in a cry from Trump that football fans tune out the NFL until players shut up and simply play.
“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our country, you will see change take place fast,” Trump tweeted. “Fire or suspend!”
Owners have already followed such an order in the case of the man, Kaepernick, who sparked this uprising sometimes punctuated with clenched fists in the air. He opted out of his contract in San Francisco and shopped his résumé around a league where there are always teams desperate for a quarterback better than what they’ve got.
But aged quarterbacks, inexperienced quarterbacks, proven poor quarterbacks, even retired quarterbacks, have found opportunities to work in the NFL while Kaepernick has not. He is, make no mistake about it, locked out.
To be sure, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti admitted he held up his general manager’s and coach’s desire to sign Kaepernick because of Kaepernick’s politics.
“We’ve very sensitive to it and we’re monitoring it, and we’re still, as [General Manager] Ozzie [Newsome] said, ‘Scrimmaging it,’ ” Bisciotti said at a fan forum in July. “I know that we’re going to upset some people, and I know that we’re going to make people happy that we stood up for somebody that has the right to do what he did. Nonviolent protesting is something that we have all embraced. I don’t like the way he did it. Personally, I kind of liked it a lot when he went from sitting to kneeling [as his protest]. I don’t know, I’m Catholic, we spend a lot of time kneeling.”
But Bisciotti didn’t kneel with his team in London. And he still hasn’t given Kaepernick a contract. Neither have the 31 members of his exclusive club called NFL Owners.
Unless and until one of them does, their standing with protesting players is the height of disingenuousness. The players need to recognize as much.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.