By Sam Burnham
The "Take a Knee" protest found its way to the top of our national conversation this past weekend. It is a highly contentious topic to be sure. But how did we arrive at this place in the conversation? The answer reaches back to the early 80's and is centered in old business grievances, lawsuits, and enough bad blood to cause a war. So just how did we find ourselves here?
This situation, in the form we know it right now, stemmed from the former San Francisco quarterback choosing to sit or kneel for the national anthem before football games. He claims he was protesting police brutality in the US. The actions drew both praise and criticism throughout the season as both sides of the argument.
It is not being widely communicated that at the time the protests began that Kaepernick had fallen to third string on the 49ers roster. There were never any similar actions from Kaepernick while he was still the starting quarterback in San Fran. The grievance appeared only after his demotion.
According to ESPN, after the hiring of John Lynch as the new general manager of the 49ers, Lynch met with Kaepernick and he was offered a contract with the team. In March, Kaepernick chose instead to opt for free agency. Lynch left the door open for Kaepernick and it was noted that the 49ers had no quarterbacks lined up at the time. Kaepernick stuck with his free agency decision and waited for offers from other teams. Those offers never came. The 49ers signed new quarterbacks and went on with their business. Kaepernick was now unemployed.
President Donald Trump
Enter President Donald Trump. Trump made the Kaepernick protests part of his campaign rhetoric, pointing to them as he pushed his patriotic and nationalistic message in a successful effort to woo middle American voters. Kaepernick fit into the villain narrative with "Crazy Bernie", "Little Marco", and "Crooked Hillary". The idea of a player disrespecting the flag and the anthem played well to his base. And it is a message that he kept after inauguration.
The president has an issue that few have been talking about and it is bordering on a conflict of interests. In 1982, Trump, and others, initiated a business that offered competition for the NFL. The United States Football League (USFL) was an attempt at a revolutionary idea in pro football. The games were played in the summer to not be in direct competition with the NFL or college football. They were aiming for fan dollars during the off season, hoping to build a fan base and make a run on the NFL as a serious competitor. The league attracted big name players like Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly, and Doug Flutie, They also had some familiar faces in coaches such as Steve Spurrier, Jim Mora, and Pepper Rodgers. Trump was the owner of the New Jersey Generals and a major investor in the league.
But the NFL hates competition and the enterprise set off an all out feud between the leagues. The USFL would end in bankruptcy but that became a lawsuit that they technically won, but not in a manner that could save the fledgling league. The feud and lawsuit was such an issue with Trump that he dedicated an entire chapter to it in his much celebrated book, The Art of the Deal. Understanding the way that Trump lives by the feud, one cannot understate the truth that Trump is still at odds with the NFL and always will be. The NFL cost him A LOT of money.
The National Football League is the (then) non-profit organization that brought in $13 billion in revenues in 2015. It is also an entity that often slaps its employees on the wrist for domestic abuse, sexual assault, and other violent crimes. It has come under scrutiny of late for its efforts to keep a cover on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to concussions and other head injuries common in pro football. The NFL was basically forced into a $1 billion settlement with retirees over the illness but refused to accept any responsibility for the illness or the often tragic incidents, most notably suicide, that seem to plague those who suffer from it.
Needless to say, the league is no stranger to controversy, but they have become experts at handling it in ways that serve their bottom line and not much else.
The Players Who Protested Sunday
After Kaepernick, a few other players joined in, making their own types of protests. Multiple estimates say that as few as 5% on players had opted to sit or take a knee. The protests were noted, but were minimal until this past week.
So what happened?
Kaepernick has still been a constant presence in media. Early last week, NPR's On Point dedicated an entire hour to discussing Kaepernick and the idea that he had been "blackballed" by the league, but never mentioned the offer from the 49ers this past March. No one elese seems to be bringing that fact up either.
With all the talk of Kaepernick in the news as well as the failure of President Trump's pet policies on healthcare, immigration, tax reform, etc, to find any progress whatsoever, the president opted to try a diversion. He began tweeting about the sparse protests and the unemployed Kaepernick and stirring the pot for his base who are growing more agitated about his lack of policy success. If he slapped a recognizable villain with some rhetoric, folks might forget about the fact that Obamacare is still very much alive or that nary a single dime has been allocated for a border wall.
Feeling the insult from the president in such a public method, players were taking knees all over. Only one of the 53 Pittsburgh Steelers even showed up for the Anthem. Alejandro Villanueva, an Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan and earned a Bronze Star for Valor came out of the tunnel and stood for the anthem. But so many others chose to join the protest, indicating that this wasn't about police brutality, the anthem, or Kaepernick. This protest was about Trump and his statements and tweets.
So what we have is a businessman still seething over a failed venture that started five years before Kaepernick was even born, a quarterback upset about being dropped to third string launching a publicity stunt, a league that is trying to surf the controversy and keep raking in the tax-free cash, and a bunch of players who have (likely unknowingly) found themselves becoming pawns of a terrible fiasco.
And now the American people are arguing about it like any of it matters as much as $20 trillion in debt, Americans of all colors still coming home from war draped in our flag, the fact that no Americans in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands has a home or power or running water, or the fact that our government is failing us through all of this.
President Trump, Colin Kaepernick, and the NFL, don't take a knee. Take a bow. That was one impressive show y'all just put on.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire