Not since the days of the Black Power movement have we seen collective mobilisation by sportspersons of this magnitude against an oppressive regime.
Priyansh is a freelance sports writer.
Huntsville, Alabama. The latest theatre to witness the absurdity that is Donald Trump. It is no longer astounding that his politics is defined by racism. But it is deeply worrying that the hatred President Trump spews is getting viler by the day, probably informed by the desperation of his embattled administration. Sample the latest bile.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b***h off the field right now, out, he’s fired!’” Trump continued: “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s gonna say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in the country.”
There was more. Tweets, as usual. The white supremacist masquerading as President of the United States continues his show. He does not like the tag, though. Only a few days ago, the White House demanded the sacking of a female sports presenter, Jemele Hill, from ESPN for calling Trump a white supremacist on Twitter.
What got the president’s goat this time is the widespread approval that Colin Kaepernick’s politics seems to be gaining. In the year since the ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback kneeled during the national anthem to protest police discrimination against black Americans, other footballers have embraced his move. And the protests now are no longer limited to Kaepernick’s colleagues.
Basketball players in the NBA have long known to be politically active, arguably the most activism-prone group among professional sportspersons. But on September 23, Bruce Maxwell became the first baseball player to kneel during the national anthem. His words got to the crux of the issue. The Oakland Athletics rookie catcher spoke with clarity – something we would find nearly impossible to associate with Trump.
“This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag,” said Maxwell, who’s the son of a US armed forces veteran.
After Trump’s rally on September 22, sportspersons, league commissioners and team owners had their say over the weekend. The overwhelming response was in support of athletes who took a political stand on the field of play. Thankfully, the conversation is not stuck with the hoary adage that ‘sport and politics don’t mix’. Thanks to past breakthroughs and current acts of activism, we have now reached a point where our sportspersons are even expected to speak out.
In fact, it is interesting that the chaos wrecked by Trump has managed to alienate people who would usually keep mum or pitch their tent in Trump’s camp. Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, is a case in point. He has publicly backed Trump’s politics but even he – among six owners who made financial contributions to the president’s inauguration fund not so long ago – expressed his disappointment at the comments. The NFL commissioner Roger Goodell found Trump’s speech disrespectful.
The point worth making here is that team owners and league commissioners are generally politically inept figures who offer spineless responses. Something that ESPN was guilty of, in light of Jemele Hill’s tweet, when its attempt to remove her from the programme Sportscenter floundered embarrassingly. But in an extraordinary time like now, more and more figures within the sporting world are finding it difficult to keep quiet. When the NBA champions come out with an official statement to back their player instead of expressing regret at a cancelled White House invitation, the situation is no longer par for the course. Or Seattle Seahawks, for that matter, whose players are no longer going to sing the national anthem.
The sheer volume of response and conversation generated by Trump’s remarks makes it important to consider the collective ideas that underlie the antagonism. It is worth emphasising that although #TakeAKnee began with Kaepernick’s desire to bring public attention to police violence against black Americans, it is a movement that has now acquired wider resonance.
It is, in its very essence, a movement about race and white supremacy. It is about the right of black athletes to speak out against a presidency that targets and hunts all sorts of dissidents. A president who one day threatens to start a nuclear war and, the next morning, paints a kneeling footballer as a threat to American society. A society within which keeping silent about politics was the only kind of response expected of sportspersons.
It is a discourse that has not come about as an immediate response to Trump’s politics. After his victory in November last year, there was a period of silence. A period, as it turned out, of reflection and discussion for Colin Kaepernick. The quarterback receded from public life. But in his ‘quiet’ phase, he read books and engaged with people who were actively involved in activism against the discrimination faced by black Americans.
A Bleacher Report profile of Kaepernick described the education the quarterback went through, with his partner Nessa playing a pivotal role. She introduced him to her Berkeley classmate Ameer Loggins, a doctoral researcher in African diaspora studies. As Loggins said, “Me and Colin started talking. And I gave him The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins was a text. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was a text. I might have said Ain’t I a Woman. But what I was really trying to do was give a well-rounded presentation – to develop a more nuanced framework to build upon.”
It is within this framework that Kaepernick embraced his role as an activist. But his active exclusion by NFL teams owners for his politics meant that he was unemployed at the start of this campaign. This led to a firm pushback, with ‘The NFL Boycott’ movement gathering pace. But as Kaepernick wished all along, this was a broader mission than just him kneeling through a national anthem.
Not to argue that kneeling has little political value. In fact, it has come to offer a powerful image. But it is important to generate new discourses around race in public life, especially in times of the Trump administration. Sport’s ability to effect real change is often overstated but in this case, perhaps, there is room for optimism.
Of course, #TakeAKnee has also been a consequence of the larger debates around race over the past year but it is another example of the disaffection felt by the non-white American population. Its role in the current situation is important because it provides another space to contest Trump’s idea of America.
It also shows, particularly in Kaepernick’s case, that sportspersons can come to develop a critical outlook on the world and speak perceptively. For Kaepernick, in light of his forced exclusion from the NFL, it may have become his only job. But as the likes of Marcus Bennett have shown, it is not a burden that is Kaepernick’s alone.
Arguably, not since the days of the Black Power movement have we seen collective mobilisation by sportspersons of this magnitude against an oppressive regime. The gains are obvious now. We have a generation today of black athletes who will not keep quiet about the insidious ways of racism. James Baldwin’s words from 1961 boom in the air, “The real question which faces the Republic is just how long, how violent, and how expensive the funeral is going to be…”
Trump, with his questionable business acumen, is likely to stretch this out. His comments on Friday suggest that his racism is going to flourish. But a vigorous response has left him looking unhinged, with a few more friends not fancying his company anymore. These are the kind of gains that can be achieved as a result of collective pressure-building.
Those who do not agree with Trump will keep talking and fighting. Colin’s mother Teresa Kaepernick, in response to Trump’s egregious words, had a clever answer too. She took on the abuse and subverted it. It is the level of intelligence Trump may find difficult to comprehend.
Over to you then, Mr President. We are watching.