By Apryl Lewis
Since Colin Kaepernick started protesting during the national anthem in 2016, other NFL players also engaged in similar protests to bring attention to social injustices against people of color. As national anthem protests gained momentum, many white sports fans questioned Black athletes’ patriotism, rather than concerning themselves with the issues athletes are protesting about and seeking to bring attention to. White Americans utilize patriotic rituals and rhetoric as a way to misdirect the conversations professional athletes want to have regarding racial disparities not only in sports, but also in society. With tweets and comments at a political rally, President Donald Trump uses patriotism and patriotic rhetoric to further white supremacist ideas and reaffirm America’s racial status quo. Trump’s remarks about NFL players protesting during the national anthem endorse a white supremacist ideology in that he accuses athletes of being spoiled, unpatriotic, or ungrateful for the opportunity to play the game they love. The fallout from NFL players’ protests provides one way of examining the intersections between patriotism, athletes, and societal perspectives regarding an individual’s “American-ness.”
Michael Tesler of the Washington Post explains how many Americans consider being patriotic as synonymous with being white and how white Americans are enabled to define “American-ness” and what it means to be patriotic. Tesler says, “Whites who feel a sense of solidarity with other whites have historically felt more strongly attached to such symbols of patriotism as the national anthem and the American flag.” Suggesting that most white NFL viewers cling to American patriotism more than their non-white counterparts is not unreasonable because, from the country’s inception, white Americans declared themselves superior to not only Native Americans, but also to those who were brought to America as slaves. However, the mindset that African Americans are not as patriotic is rooted in racial resentment, which is “characterized by beliefs that African Americans are insufficiently industrious, obedient and deserving.” Black professional athletes, despite their hard work in their sport, are no exception to racial resentment from the American public at large. White Americans who have a mentality rooted in racial resentment and white supremacy emphasize an athlete’s economic wealth as a means of discrediting any athlete who maintains a level of social consciousness and wants to engage in conversations about race in society.
President Trump’s word choices in his tweets, and during a political rally, highlight the racial resentment a large constituent of NFL viewers has against Black athletes. Trump conveyed his displeasure with NFL players who protest during the anthem at a September 22, 2017, political rally in Huntsville, Alabama. He said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!” Trump went on to say, “The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s just one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop…” He criticized NFL players who engage in protests during the pregame national anthem, as well as encouraged disgruntled fans to leave the stadium at the sight of any players protesting. Not surprisingly, the players who are engaging in these protests that “disrespect the flag and country” are overwhelmingly Black athletes. Certainly Trump’s words were seen as divisive, offensive, and inappropriate across the NFL from the commissioner and team owners to coaches and players. Most NFL team owners or officials emphatically denounced the president’s comments and backed their players. Some NFL players, and even non-NFL players, expressed indignation over Trump’s comments and took to social media to make their feelings known.
However, the demonstrations of outrage over Trump’s words at the rally did not end in cyberspace. Instead, football games provided another outlet for teams to show solidarity. In London, where two teams met for one of the four games in the United Kingdom during the 2017 season, some players from the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars knelt during the anthem. Players for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans were not present on the field during the national anthem. Even New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who once had a “Make American Great Again” hat in his locker during the 2016 presidential campaign, stood and locked arms while approximately 20 of his teammates knelt. Other teams engaged in similar protests where players, staff, and team owners locked arms, knelt, or raised a fist during the national anthem. Teams who had not been vocal about protests or had players engaging in protest prior to Trump’s comments, such as the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, also chose to demonstrate solidarity during the anthem. Collectively, the protests by various teams that weekend left the NFL too overwhelmed to react and Donald Trump in fits on Twitter.
Not only were these protests in response to Trump’s remarks at the rally, but the protests are also a continuation of the activism that Colin Kaepernick initiated in 2016. Two days later, Trump voiced his opinions about NFL players’ protests on Twitter. In searching his Twitter timeline, the surge in tweets concerning the NFL started after the September 24 tweet, “Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag—we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” This tweet provides one instance where Trump demands American people to “honor and respect” the flag in an effort to uphold his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” In another tweet the same day, Trump stated, “Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!” Although neither tweet explicitly mentioned the NFL, both tweets coincided with NFL preseason games where players engaged in protests during the national anthem.
Trump responded to NFL players’ protests with five separate tweets on September 25 from 5:31am until 4:29pm, three of which are quoted at length. Trump’s first tweet said, “Many people booed the players who kneeled yesterday (which was a small percentage of total). These are fans who demand respect for our Flag!” His second tweet said, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” His last tweet on September 25 said, “Tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players for disrespect of our Country. #StandForOurAnthem” and included an American flag emoji.
Trump continued his denigration of protesting players throughout the remainder of the season, including around the annual games on the American Thanksgiving holiday.. In one tweet, Trump says, “Can you believe that the disrespect for our Country, our Flag, our Anthem continues without penalty to the players[?] The Commissioner has lost control of the hemorrhaging league. Players are the boss!” Using a phrase like “players are the boss” suggests that players should be submissive employees that comply with demands placed on them by the NFL and, to an extent, by demands from the viewing public (including Trump). His wording also suggests that players should not have a voice beyond the realm of a football game. In other words, Trump’s sentiments expressed in the tweet coincide with an ethos that exists among other NFL owners regarding NFL players’ being replaceable when a particular player “becomes a problem.”
Lastly, on December 8, 2017, Trump posted a tweet that said, “We believe that every American should stand for the National Anthem, and we proudly pledge allegiance to one NATION UNDER GOD!” Although this tweet is not necessarily about the NFL, the tweet does present another example of using patriotic symbols to garner support from those who consider themselves patriotic. Even this veiled tweet highlights the underlying expectation that everyone in America, including Black NFL athletes engaging in protests, should be standing for the national anthem because Trump and other like-minded individuals say so. Standing for the national anthem, at least in the minds of Americans who uphold white supremacist views, is one’s patriotic duty and should be performed as a token of respect.
Trump’s nearly 40 tweets regarding the NFL and players’ protests share a commonality, specifically capitalizing the words “flag,” “country,” and “national anthem.” He appears to call attention to the fact that these words embody aspects of the United States of America. The capitalization of these words creates a sense of urgency in the American public to come to the defense of patriotic symbols and denounce individuals whose actions “disrespect” these American symbols. Another characteristic of Trump’s tweets are his emphasis on the word “our,” as though he aims to speak on behalf of his followers on Twitter and anyone else paying attention to his tweets. Trump’s conscious decision to capitalize specific words and place emphasis on American citizens, as a collective, are two ways he attempts to appeal to people’s patriotic sentiments, as shown in this small sample of tweets.
Trump’s responses to NFL players’ anthem protests reveal not only the recurrence of issues about race, but also the inherently white supremacist reactions to those protests. Trump, his administration, and his tweets, collectively lead the proverbial charge against Black NFL players who use their platform as means of protesting racial injustice or challenging the racial status quo. Trump’s multitude of tweets regarding the NFL and players’ protests border on excessive. One could argue that the numerous tweets about the NFL are a means of misdirecting criticism from other major issues (e.g. Puerto Rico, healthcare, Russia, etc.). However, Trump’s tweets indicate the extent he uses patriotic symbols to appeal to heavily patriotic audiences.
What can we expect from POTUS during the NFL playoffs? Well, considering his preoccupation with voter identification, denouncing Michael Wolff’s tell-all book, and counterattacking the “Fake News Media,” among many things, that Trump still had time to retweet a picture (on January 4) and say “Show this picture to the NFL players who still kneel!,” I wouldn’t be surprised to see yet another tweet from Trump that implies Black athletes’ lack of patriotic fervor as the playoffs commence.
Apryl Lewis is a PhD student in English at Texas Tech University studying American Literature. When she’s not reading or teaching, she is glued to the television watching sports She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @AprylLewis91.