EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—Donald Trump wielded the powerful reach of the presidency to shred activist football players, and five Miami Dolphins answered by kneeling during the national anthem this afternoon.
Who made better use of their platform?
Kenny Stills, Julius Thomas, Laremy Tunsil, Jay Ajayi and Maurice Smith are the ones actually seeking to make America great in this exchange, seeing an opportunity for peaceful resistance and not letting it slip past them. There was nothing bombastic or profane about their demonstration, no venomous attacks like Trump’s assertion that those five and anyone like them is a “son of a bitch” who should be fired.
Only one of these approaches is truly un-American, and it’s the one in which the authority figure abuses his position by calling for those who speak up to lose their livelihood.
On the flipside, there’s nothing unpatriotic about the players’ civil protest. It’s the most American thing they could have done, and it’s misdirection to attempt to cast it as anti-military or anti-flag.
It’s not even entirely about Trump, though he’s the one who directly triggered this in Miami’s locker room. That would be grossly oversimplifying what’s at the heart of their movement. He’s merely a symptom of the illness.
“It was for this country,” said Jarvis Landry, who stood in the middle of the five and hugged each one of them afterward.
Trump’s the one who practically begged for this wave of protests, whether he realized it or not. It’s nearly impossible to differentiate between intentional and unintentional with him.
At first glance it looks like his comments Friday backfired, but maybe he wanted this. Perhaps he enjoyed seeing the reaction ripple through the league, spreading even to another continent because the Jaguars and Ravens played in London, as he plays to his fervent base. Maybe this makes his side dig in harder.
“I just felt like the president was trying to use fear, and we had a lot of guys that wanted to take a knee and I didn’t want to leave them out to dry by themselves,” Stills said. “I didn’t want to be intimidated by the president. It was time for me to get back in and join the protest, and with the support of my teammates and everyone locking arms, it was the perfect time.”
Tunsil wasn’t part of last year’s demonstrations, but part of him wanted to be. As a rookie, he admitted he wouldn’t have been comfortable explaining himself if he’d done it. There’s a lot of heat that comes with taking these stands.
This year, he was all-in. He made his decision instantly Friday night.
“I had to stand up for my rights,” Tunsil said. “Basically, he was talking to African-American players because we’re standing up for our rights and we want to take knees. But he called us sons of bitches? You’re the president of the United States. You’re not supposed to do anything like that.
“But y’all want him in office and that’s what y’all got. Now he’s calling African Americans sons of bitches because we’re standing up for our rights. What’s going on in America? People look at the NFL as though we just want to entertain people and amuse people; they don’t respect us. It tells you a lot when the president comes out and calls us sons of bitches.”
Based on the explanations most of these players have given, their intent seems to be unity rather than discord. They’re not looking for enemies. They want allies.
They’re demonstrating because they’ve seen injustice much of their lives and they want change. They’re letting others who share the struggle know they’re not alone, and they hope it prompts those of us who don’t endure daily discrimination take notice.
“I’ve done everything I can to try and bring people together, and people still aren’t understanding,” Stills said. “They’re still not listening. At some point in time, we’ve gotta step back and have tough conversations. You’ve gotta listen to people that don’t agree with you.
“I promise you, we’re trying to do something that’s right… We’re not trying to divide anybody, we’re not trying to disrespect anybody. We’ve never been that way. I just encourage people to have a tough conversation.”
Race-based injustice isn’t a new trend. It’s been part of this country’s heritage since its inception. The variable is how much white people notice and how much of a voice black people feel they have to speak against it.
Athletes have never had the ability to be heard like they are now, thanks to the massive reach of social media and the unprecedented visibility of sports on television. It’s inspiring to see them use it for something that matters.
“Before I’m a football player, I’m a man,” Thomas said. “That is above any profession we all have. I’ve heard the comments that this isn’t the time or place to do that, and you’re right that I could have a rally or invite people from back home—people that feel the same way I do—and how many people will I touch? How many people will I get to talk to? A couple hundred, maybe a thousand.
“But I took the opportunity today to show millions of people that I’m not OK with somebody trying to prevent someone from standing for what they think is important. I think that’s what our country’s about. That should always be respected. To have somebody calling someone silently protesting a son of a bitch is past what I believe is acceptable.”
And they’re doing it at great risk, though these particular players are fortunate to have the full support of billionaire owner Stephen Ross. He stood arm-in-arm between Reshad Jones and Mike Pouncey during the anthem, and no owner in the league has been as outspoken on this topic. He cleared the way for his employees to act freely by releasing a sharp statement against Trump’s remarks Saturday.
Many don’t have that security. Colin Kaepernick isn’t a great quarterback, but he’s good enough to have a job somewhere in this league and remains unemployed. Even as the disappointment over not getting to play lingers, surely he was proud of what happened today. He’s winning bigger off the field than he ever did on it.
Smith is an undrafted rookie at the back of the Dolphins’ depth chart at safety, someone most fans wouldn’t blink if the team cut him. He’s 22 and has no idea at this point how many years he’ll be able to earn an NFL salary. Some of protesters are so valuable that they can do pretty much anything and count on having a job, but there are many players like Smith who must weigh such consequences.
Many Dolphins wore “#IMWITHKAP” t-shirts before the game, as did strength and conditioning assistant Mike Wahle. He played offensive guard for 11 years, including a Pro Bowl season in 2005. More significantly, he’s a product of the United States Naval Academy.
“I have to put my health on the line for the man next to me; How could I not respect someone that’s gonna put their life on the line for the man next to them and for the people back home?” Thomas said. “If somebody wants to say that’s what I have no respect for, then they’re just using that to prevent people from seeking equality.”
We all like to think we have the guts to make a stand of that magnitude, but I probably don’t. I’m too concerned with my comfort and the certain backlash from family, friends and co-workers. I’d be an unlikely candidate to put my easy existence on the line.
It’s also admirable that players can compartmentalize so effectively, leaving one intense situation to step into a completely different one moments later.
The anthem wasn’t weighing on anyone once the Dolphins and Jets took the field for kickoff. It’s absurd to draw any connection between the player demonstration and the ensuing 20-6 loss to the Jets. No one who’s been around NFL players would think that. It makes no impact on their job itself, unlike how Trump’s fixation continuing to distract him from one he’s been doing so ineptly the last eight months.
“We stand up for our rights, we take a knee—that’s point-blank simple,” Tunsil said. “After that’s over, we’re playing football. Put the ball on the ground, and we’ll play football.”
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