On September 24 something beautiful to behold happened. A group of black athletes and some white allies refused to be bullied by our so-called President. Even more stepped forward on October 1. Of course I am referring to the group of football players who took knees in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. Ever since September 24, Donald Trump has railed against the players and particularly Kaepernick because he was allegedly disrespecting the flag, the military, first responders and the entire nation. This is so typical of Trump that it should not require explanation but here goes anyway: Kaepernick was very explicit in stating that he took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem as a way of protesting the wanton unpunished killing of too many unarmed black people by police officers. He was also protesting police brutality in general. Trump, of course, ignores this completely and has turned the entire story into one of “disrespect.” Too many people have fallen for this “misdirection play.”
For this non-violent protest, Kaepernick earned extraordinary hatred from many of his fellow citizens and the embarrassed silence of many potential allies who agreed with his goal but decried his method. (By the way, this is nothing new. When Dr. Martin Luther King was leading protests, many white liberals argued that he was “going too fast” and that his tactics were actually “hurting his cause” by riling up hatred from the opposition.) Kaepernick’s punishment was a release from his team and – so far – no chance to play for another team.
Colin Kaepernick sacrificed his career to make a point.
With this he joined a long list of black entertainers and athletes who, when they stepped over some limit, were slapped down by the establishment. This story is told very convincingly in a fine article by Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker entitled, “From Louis Armstrong to the N.F.L.: Ungrateful as the New Uppity” [See: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/from-louis-armstrong-to-the-nfl-ungrateful-as-the-new-uppity (September 24, 2017)].
In 1949, the great actor-singer Paul Robeson gave a speech in France to a Soviet sponsored Peace Conference. Robeson had already become famous (or infamous) as a supporter of the Soviet Union and domestic left wing causes and the right-wing, particularly the racist Southern members of Congress, were looking for ways to “put him in his place.” They got their opportunity when he was mis-quoted as asserting that American Negroes would refuse to fight in a war against the Soviet Union, Editorials all over the United States branded him a traitor. Concerts were cancelled all over the country and his passport was pulled. His yearly income dropped from $150,000 to $3000. [See Gilbert King, “What Paul Robeson Said,” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-paul-robeson-said-77742433/ September 13, 2011]
Cobb’s article begins with the story of the jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. In 1957, the Governor of Arkansas called out the National Guard to thwart the Little Rock school board’s plan to integrate previously all white Central High School. Armstrong was so outraged that he cancelled a goodwill tour of the Soviet Union that had been arranged by the State Department. (Armstrong also called the governor of Arkansas a “motherfucker”!) Just as with Robeson, Armstrong was vilified all over the country for being “ungrateful” for the great opportunities he had to earn a very good living as a musician. Cobb notes that “students at the University of Arkansas accused Armstrong of “creating an issue where there was none,” and joined the procession of groups cancelling Armstrong’s scheduled concerts.” The fact that Armstrong realized that it would have put him in an untenable position to attempt to “sell” the United States in the Soviet Union with the evidence of Little Rock being grist for the Soviet propaganda mill seemed lost on many of his fellow citizens. (Interestingly enough, when President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School, he framed his reasoning in stark Cold War terms. This was the only way to show the world that Soviet propaganda about American racism was false.)
Cobb’s article argues that the negative response to Kaepernick and his allies is of a piece with the response to Louis Armstrong back in 1957 (and I argue with the response to Robeson in the 1940s and 50s.) From the earliest days of the Ku Klux Klan --- formed to combat and ultimate defeat black ex-slaves attempting to exercise the citizenship rights granted by the 14th Amendment --- blacks who stood up for their rights were branded as “uppity” and, in too many cases, paid for that self-respect with their lives.
Thus, it is not surprising that very few members of the National Football League took knees in solidarity with Kaepernick over last season and during the early games of this season. This changed when the issue heated up because Donald Trump decided to turn a campaign stop in Huntsville Alabama into a Ku Klux Klan rally. Trump called Kaepernick a son-of-a-bitch and urged NFL owners to fire every member of any team who dares to act UPPITY and take a knee during the National Anthem.
That was, perhaps, one insult too many for too many African Americans. Superstars like LeBron James and Steph Curry of the NBA spoke out forcefully. A whole host of black journalists used the Sunday talk shows on October 24 to push back against the “bully in chief” in the White House. These black stars joined a long list of successful black athletes and entertainers who were sick and tired of being told they should be “grateful” for the success that --- white --- America has permitted them to enjoy --- as if their success was handed to them with no effort, talent or skill on their part to earn it. They were not going to back down, just because people called them “uppity.”
The NFL athletes and their NBA allies (and even one brave Major League baseball player) who have joined Kaepernick’s protest in solidarity have decided that they are not going to take the insults and threats from those who insist they stay in their place lying down.
AND YES, there is an economic aspect to this story. The NFL owners could punish Colin Kaepernick by blacklisting him so he cannot find a team to play for --- but when ten starters on a single team take a knee, the owners have to re-calculate the costs and benefits of being lackeys for Donald Trump. Even Robert Kraft, a million dollar contributor to Trump’s inaugural, had to pay lip service to the rights of his players to exercise their first amendment rights to free expression.
Note, by the way, that college football players – many attempting to make names for themselves so they could become NFL players --- have been much more reluctant to join with NFL players in this protest. Some Universities have made it clear that any player who does this will face disciplinary action. A quick google check found very few references to college players taking knees in solidarity with NFL protesters.
This brings us to the question as to why the owners of NFL teams have scrambled to appear to “support” their players in their right to protest --- even in the face of some booing from fans and Donald Trump’s bombast.
The reason boils down to economics. The owners have billions of dollars invested in putting a competitive team on the field. Though the players are risking a lot --- they could find their ability to get endorsement contracts reduced or they might be cut more readily should their performances falter --- they have power that the owners must respect. However, for the moment, NFL players are established at the professional level --- and they are indispensable to the owners. (Here Trump was accurate when he mused that the owners were “afraid of their players.”) That is why the owners who have conspired to not hire Colin Kaepernick have been very respectful of their players’ rights. The NFL players have demonstrated what every union member knows --- if you stick together, you’ll win.
Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author (with Howard Sherman) of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.
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