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Explainer: Why are NFL players kneeling? And how did Trump get involved?

Trump this morning tweeted his hope that the NFL will bring in a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem.

NY: New York newspaper coverage of NFL players and Donald Trump feud New York newspapers on Monday. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

LAST NIGHT IN Phoenix, Arizona, the curtain came down on Week 3 of the NFL season.

However, after comments by President Trump on Friday in Alabama, the focus of many ended after the national anthem was played in the University of Phoenix Stadium.

Before their 28-17 win over the hosting Cardinals, the Dallas Cowboys players, coaches and owner all took to one knee, rising before the national anthem. It was a statement from “America’s Team”, but not an overly strong one.

But how did we get to the point where when talking about American football, as is seemingly the case with everything from the Oscars to the Boy Scouts, we’re talking about Donald Trump?

Kaep in hand

Turn issues that may arise during the Super Bowl into teachable moments for kids San Francisco 49ers Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid (35) kneel during the national anthem before their NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys in 2016. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

To know how we are where we are, you need to know where we’ve been. To do that, we need to go back 13 months. In August of last year, Colin Kaepernick, then vying for the starting quarterback role at the San Francisco 49ers sat during the national anthem before a preseason game.

Asked about his decision, he said his protest was about police brutality against black people. It came at the time of a number of high-profile police shootings of black people.

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Kaepernick would continue his protest, changing from sitting to kneeling after a conversation with former NFL player and US military veteran Nate Boyer. He also pledged to donate the first $1 million of his 2016 salary to needy communities. The 2016 season would see a number of NFL players join Kaepernick’s stance – Seattle’s Jeremy Lane, Denver’s Brandon Marshall and Kaepernick’s teammate Eric Reid – as well as US women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe and a handful of other sports stars.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Dallas Cowboys players kneel together with their arms locked prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

But as the originator and a high-profile, mixed-race quarterback, Kaepernick was the lightning rod.

It should be noted that while there were some who opposed what he was doing, the level of discourse around his actions never reached close to what it did over the last four days. Indeed, then-President Barack Obama said that Kaepernick was “exercising his constitutional right” to protest.

I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about. If nothing else, he’s generated more conversation about issues that have to be talked about.

However, as the year wore on, anonymous NFL executives began speaking to sports publications, saying that Kaepernick was a “traitor” and a “distraction”.

That despite his former coach Jim Harbaugh praising him as a player and a man in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential” issue.

His willingness to take a position at personal cost is now part of our American story. How lucky for us all and for our country to have among our citizens someone as remarkable as Colin Kaepernick.

When he became a free agent in March, Kaepernick was unable to find a team, despite being one of seven active players to lead a team to a Super Bowl and being considered superior by almost every available metric to a number of Week 1 starters and almost all backups.

In August, ESPN reported that Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome supported the signing of Kaepernick but cited sources saying owner Steve Bisciotti has resisted the idea. The report said the Ravens were not the first NFL team that wanted to sign Kaepernick but had the move blocked by a team owner.

The anthem

It is important to note that while the Star Spangled Banner has been played at NFL games since 1945, players in the league have been required to stand for only eight.

That rule came in in 2009 when optional standing for attention became compulsory. According to a widely-circulated meme, this is when the Department of Defense and US military began paying millions of dollars to the league to hold patriotism displays. However, fact-checking website Snopes found no correlation between the two.

2017

Texans Patriots Football Members of the New England Patriots kneel prior to their game against the Houston Texans. Source: Michael Dwyer

With Kaepernick’s non-signing mostly an off-season storyline, the controversy surrounding kneeling players had mostly receded as the NFL season kicked off.

In fact, fewer than 10 players took a knee during the first 32 games of the NFL season, though the protest did have its first white member – Cleveland Browns tight-end Seth DeValve.

However, race was still an issue among NFL players as Seattle Seahawks defender Michael Bennett released a statement the week before the season started outlining how he had been held at gunpoint by police in Las Vegas. Bennett’s “crime”? Being part of a group running from rumoured gunshots following the Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather fight.

When Bennett recorded a sack in his team’s game against San Francisco, he raised a fist reminiscent of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.

That was until last Friday when Donald Trump, speaking to a crowd in Alabama at a Senate campaign rally, decided to take on the NFL.

Speaking at the rally, the American president drew loud cheers and chants of “USA, USA, USA” when he said fans should “leave the stadium” when it happens because it shows “disrespect of our heritage”.

“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 said at the rally podium.

“You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it (but) they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

Those comments sparked a wave of anger across the league, with a number of teams hitting out at the President’s “divisiveness”. Those statements included rebukes from five former Trump donors including New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft who said he was “deeply disappointed” with the comments.

The statements were followed by shows of unity across the NFL before the weekend’s games. Some organisations linked arms, others, such as Tennessee (whose wide receiver Rishard Matthews’ brother died while fighting in Afghanistan), Pittsburgh and Seattle stayed in their dressing rooms as the anthem played.

Several members of the Miami Dolphins wore “#IMWITHKAP” t-shirts, 27 players in the Ravens-Jacksonville Jaguars game in London knelt and all teams linked arms, with some players kneeling. Some of those shows of protest – in Arizona, New England and Washington, were met with some loud booing from the stands.

But, only one team released a statement that touched on anything other than Trump’s statements. Seattle Seahawks President Peter McLoughlin said in a statement:

We fully support our players’ use of their freedom of speech and peaceful action to highlight the existing racial and other divides in our country. Our players completely respect the military and veterans of our country; however, they believe these issues need to come to the forefront.

The players followed that with a statement that reinforced that message:

We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of colour in this country. Out of love for our country and in honour of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms.

Despite the solidarity shown across the league, Trump doubled, tripled and even quadrupled down, continuing to tweet about the NFL across the weekend. For contrast, millions of US citizens in Puerto Rico were without power over the weekend. Trump’s first statement on the island came last night when he said it was “in deep trouble” and highlighted that the territory’s outstanding loans to Wall Street “must be dealt with”.

He did, however, have time on Saturday to “uninvite” the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to the White House, despite star player Steph Curry already saying he would not be going.

This has also seen Trump criticised by some of the biggest names in basketball, including LeBron James, who called him a “bum”.

Reaction

NFL PLayers and Owners Protest During Singing of National Anthem Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson take a knee. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The NFL is a league that is made up of roughly 70% black players and the only ones who had taken a knee up until August were black. Trump, however, says his comments had nothing to do with race. That explanation is rejected by many players.

The NFL’s reaction has proven divisive across social media, with some US citizens feeling the protests “disrespect the flag” or “dishonour the military”.

Those reactions show how closely linked the league is to American ideals of patriotism. Games routinely feature ads for armed force recruitment, troops are given in-stadium moments and pre-game festivities often include military flyovers.

For Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, the most disappointing thing about the reaction was how long it took. In a blistering monologue on his Fox Sports show, he took aim at the lack of reaction in the NFL to previous Trump comments.

Sharpe made the point that NFL owners reacted because they are wealthy men and women not used to being told what to do.

Source: Skip and Shannon: UNDISPUTED/YouTube

“I’m disappointed. And I’m unimpressed,” he told co-host Skip Bayless.

“Of the 7,537 things that President Trump has said in the last 50 years, him calling an NFL player an SOB is what brought the NFL, the owners and its players, together. And while some might be moved by the conscience of these NFL owners, it wasn’t their conscience that moved them. It was the cash.

We’re showing solidarity because President Trump, he challenged the very men, wealthy, wealthy, men. Billionaires. And he told them what you should do if someone protests. You should fire them. They don’t like being told what to do, Skip. And then, Skip, he called players that protested the anthem, he called them SOBs.

“The very first thing that he uttered as he strolled down that escalator 2 and 1/2 years ago, is that Mexico is sending us their worst, murderers, rapists, drug dealers. That didn’t shock the conscience of the NFL owner.

Him offending Gold Star families, nope. Him calling Rosie O’Donnell a pig. Him on the Access Hollywood talking about grabbing hoo-ha. That did not shock the very conscience of seven NFL owners. Skip, allow me a second to name those guys. One, Daniel Snyder. The guy who’s on your monitor. Jerry Jones, Mr Bob Kraft. (Bob) McNair, Houston Texans. Woody Johnson, Shahid Khan.Every author that’s written a book about President Trump, and they started writing books about him in the 1980s, they say he is exactly today as he was then. So that is all I want to say about him, Skip. Now what has happened?

“And, what, 14 months after Colin Kaepernick originally kneeled, and when they ask him, he said it’s not about the flag. It’s not about the veterans. It’s not about the police. It’s about the brutality that unarmed men and women of colour are suffering. It’s about the injustices. It’s about the inequities that’s going on in America.

“Are you – are you showing unity? Are you showing solidarity against racism? Or the injustices that’s in this country?

Or are you showing solidarity against President Trump and what he said, his attack on the very NFL, the shield. Because what we know about, above all else, those 32 men, and the commissioner, will protect that NFL shield at all costs, against all foreign and domestic. President Trump had to find that out the hard way. They’ve allowed him to attack so many groups in America. It wasn’t until he came for one of 32, and 1,600 men, and only a handful, only a handful of them, Skip, have ever kneeled in protest.

“But there’s a bigger issue, and the issue is the racism, and the injustices, in America, in which Colin Kaepernick took a knee for in the beginning. And only Martellus, and Michael Bennett, and Malcolm Jenkins, and a handful still understand what the issues are.”

Trump this morning tweeted his hope that the NFL, a private employer, will bring in a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem, a move that legal scholars have said would be unconstitutional.

However, the reaction isn’t all positive for Trump. While TV ratings for the league are down, average attendances and subscribers to the league’s online viewing product are up and sport is something Americans take seriously.

As a political strategy, it makes little sense as to just why Trump would pick this fight or keep it going.

With NFL Week 4 set to start on Thursday, it will be interesting to see if this is a battle that goes to a second quarter.

Read: Suddenly, football doesn’t seem all that important as NFL players fight back

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