By MICHELE MURPHY
If you saw a big kid whaling on a little kid, would you do something? Actually, if you saw two kids of equal size going at it, would you do something?
If you saw a parent going off uncontrollably on their kids, or someone driving erratically, or a suspected drug deal, or something that looked “off” to you, would you do something?
In this era of “If you see something, say something,” I believe decent people would do something.
In recent weeks, nearly 200 Americans decided to do something because they thought something was wrong. Professional football players took a knee prior to or during the playing of the national anthem. Their intention was to raise public awareness of and take a stand about what they sincerely believe is the mistreatment and killing of unarmed African-Americans by some police officers.
The reaction to their action has been strong. We do not know whether 50% or 45% or any other percent agree or disagree with their action.
Some, including the President, declared their act disrespectful to soldiers and veterans. Players have refuted this charge repeatedly. Some have called their action unpatriotic. Others have stood with the players because they, too, sincerely believe that some people of color have been unfairly brutalized by some cops.
Things escalated when the President referred to protesting players using a curse word and declared that owners should fire them. Like most Americans, we don’t like being bullied or told what to do. The following weekend, the overwhelming response among players and owners – several of whom are supporters of the President – was to take a knee, lock arms, or even remain in the locker room until the anthem was over.
Logic suggests that the people who create a symbol – like a protest over an issue – should be the ones to determine its meaning. However, it’s their responsibility to make sure others understand their intention and they need to be sensitive to how “the world” will view their action.
A media-savvy President with roots in reality TV bested them by grabbing their protest and pushing their intention to the background by loudly asserting they were disrespectful to the flag and veterans. He even called them unpatriotic.
The President continued to heap criticism on the protests insisting that so many Americans were opposed to the players’ protests that TV viewers were abandoning football “bigly.” I am sure some did. However, I am more certain that the public – which has been watching less and less TV and football for years – may be impacted by other realities. Many Americans this fall are dealing with effects of natural disasters – flooding, multiple hurricanes, raging fires. Some have no homes, no electricity, no TVs. They’re not thinking football.
It’s not just football viewing that is down. So is NASCAR and NBA, according to media ratings companies who follow these trends. It’s no secret that television execs are scrambling and sweating over lost viewership beyond sports as well. Over the past decade or so, many have changed viewing habits. Think Netflix, Amazon or Hulu, as examples.
Personally, I believe that public awareness of the impact of head injuries on players could be football’s swan song. Many parents have pulled their kids from football programs. The spigot that creates the pipeline to pro football is being turned off.
This week, the owners of NFL football teams meet and they will talk about the protests and how to handle them going forward. Make no mistake, this is dicey stuff. Owners are business people who invest billions in their teams to make money. They are already dealing with years of flagging viewership and a head injury controversy that will not go away.
Their virtual unanimous support of protesting players at the end of September, following the President’s “fire them” comments, is flagging. They know they literally cannot afford to alienate remaining fans who buy tickets or watch TV. As owners, they have the right to set standards for their players when they are “at work.”
However, issuing an order for players to stand during the anthem can cause serious blowback if players continue to protest. It’s important to point out that there is no law or code that requires any American to stand for the anthem. A Supreme Court decision in 1943 – nearly 75 years ago – settled that.
It also may be worth noting that nearly 4 million Americans do not say the Pledge of Allegiance, salute the flag or stand and sing the anthem based on their religious beliefs. This includes Quakers, Christian Scientists, Amish and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As someone raised Catholic, I was taught to both genuflect and kneel as a sign of respect. So when I see players kneeling, with bowed heads, I see something that, to me, means respect. I am not a fan of sitting through the anthem or raised clenched fists.
So far, no fines have been levied. No players have been benched. If this changes, owners know they could face a player revolt and/or a lawsuit. While remote, they could also face a player strike.
The founders of our country incorporated these powerful words into our Declaration of Independence, ending what they believed was the unfair, oppressive rule of the British monarchy: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
For protesting players – and those who agree with them – some Americans are not treated equally and, therefore are denied their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The last line is the national anthem is “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
For protesting players – and those who agree with them – some Americans – particularly people of color – do not experience the freedom promised in that anthem.
The larger public discussion, to this point, remains unsettled and unresolved. For many, the President’s remarks, which even his supporters like football superstar Tom Brady label “divisive,” are viewed as negatively by some as the protests are by some others.
With NFL football now receiving recurring Presidential pummeling, one can’t help but wonder whether some of the vitriol is the result of the fact that Mr. Trump, the civilian, tried to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014. His bid was not accepted by NFL owners. Ouch. We all know the President gets grouchy when he doesn’t “feel the love.” We also have seen him go after those who have opposed or angered him. Think Sessions, McConnell, Tillerson and Corker, and that’s the short list.
I was reminded this morning about a quote from the movie, “An American President,” which seems to fit this discussion about what constitutes patriotic protest.
“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
When owners meet, they have an opportunity to show us how to figure out a fair and reasonable resolution to this dilemma. If there’s is anything worth watching about football this fall, it could be this.