Wojo: Athletes united despite divisive words

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Eight Detroit Lions players chose to kneel during the national anthem on Sunday at Ford Field.

So the president of the United States is mad at a bunch of sports people. He’s mad they’re not following accepted rules of decorum, even though he notoriously flouts rules of decorum. He thinks football players who kneel for the national anthem are disrespecting the flag and the nation, and this is such an enormous issue, he tweets about it literally every day.

Donald Trump is doing what he does best – rallying his supporters, mocking dissent and fanning emotions. He’s playing to the simplest, nastiest instinct in people – Us vs. Them – and taking it straight to the playing field in the loudest, ugliest way possible.

I’m not here to offer advice to an accomplished populist such as Trump. Whichever way you lean, the man certainly knows how to provoke response and work an audience. I’m here to say sports figures are not remotely the patsies he makes them out to be.

A resounding response was delivered all across NFL America on Sunday, as players in virtually every stadium stood locked in arms during the national anthem. Some players knelt. A few teams stayed in their locker rooms. Some were joined on the sideline by owners, such as the Lions’ Martha Ford. Many owners issued statements of condemnation about the comments from Trump that suggested protesting players should be fired.

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On Monday night, the Dallas Cowboys locked arms, along with owner Jerry Jones, and briefly dropped to a knee as the anthem was about to play in Arizona, and the crowd booed.

The controversy showed no signs of abating, as NBA training camps opened and the sport’s biggest stars ramped up the outcry.

Protest purpose skewed 

The latest attempt to divide has instead unified, especially in the NFL and NBA, where the majority of Trump’s sports-themed attacks have centered. Of course, those leagues have the highest percentage of black athletes, and thus would be the most aware of racial injustice. And for those who say a rich black athlete cannot deeply understand social injustice – or have relatives who experience it — please step out of your bubble.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s stance, saying, “It’s always appropriate for the president of this country to promote our flag, to promote the National Anthem, and ask people to respect it.”

Sadly, as with many forms of protest and counter-protest, the meanings have gotten skewed, and people believe what they want to believe. What began more than a year ago with then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting to protest incidents of police brutality, has morphed into something perceived differently by some. But at the root, I believe this to be true: It’s not about disrespecting the flag; it’s about disrespecting each other.

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When Trump stirred an Alabama crowd into a froth the other night, basking in the attention he craves, there was nothing subtle about it. Sometimes you wish everyone would just ignore the outlandish rhetoric, but that’s easy to say when you’re not the one being called names.

“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?” Trump said. “He’s fired! He’s fired!”

Trump added on Twitter that the NFL should order its players to stand, and if the owners didn’t follow along, fans should walk out. I think the president perceived the NFL to be weak, perhaps because of softer TV ratings, and doubted players and owners would band together.

It’s so simplistic and disingenuous to pretend this is merely about disrespecting the flag. Is it then equally disrespectful to boo during the anthem, as many fans did in their own form of protest toward the protesters? Is it equally disrespectful to videotape people who are sitting during the anthem, as a Lions fan famously did two weeks ago, then posted the photo with a racial slur?

Athletes vs. fans

Lions coach Jim Caldwell is a child of the civil rights movement, a principled man who declines to curse. But he was nearly moved to do so when asked about his players’ response, and he declared they were not “SOBs.”

“Our guys believe in unity, civility and also the First Amendment rights to peaceful expression and freedom of speech,” Caldwell said. “That’s really all I want to say about it. It’s taken up too much time and too much energy and we’re trying to focus in on things that help us grow and develop, not things that tear people down and divide us.”

Exactly the point, and exactly the lesson Trump and others could learn from the very people they’re rebuking. Athletes operate in the ultimate competitive environment, facing a new opponent every week, performing in hostile settings, working alongside teammates they might have to beat out for a job. And yet, watch a game and observe the ability – the absolute necessity – to set aside differences for the good of the team.

Oh, there are flawed, disingenuous people in the sports world, too, and it’s important any discourse stay as civil as possible. I think Kaepernick lost his way in that regard, with over-the-top caricatures and portrayals of law enforcement, and now is used as a convenient symbol of hypocrisy by both sides.

You’d think Trump, who loves sports and entertainment, would appreciate the uniting aspect, yet says countless things to tear it apart. Disgustingly, it’s cloaked in the guise of patriotism. But if military people defend the basic right to engage in non-violent protest, why would anyone else have a problem with it? That cuts both ways — if someone is offended by kneeling, it’s a viewpoint that should be considered and respected.

Perhaps unwittingly, Trump is indeed revealing a divide in the sports world – not between athletes and owners, but between athletes and fans. There were boos in almost every stadium during the anthem protests, and players felt compelled to defend their honor.

A strong leader would diffuse the situation, but that clearly is not Trump’s agenda. It’s divide and confound, and at least so far, athletes aren’t falling for it.

At the Pistons media day Monday, players praised their NFL brethren and contemplated their own approach to Trump’s coarse ways. If Trump’s goal was to stir the fans, he also stirred the athletes, and that might be the healthiest byproduct of this mess. The notion of “sticking to sports” used to seem quaint and fitting in a business that relies heavily on the paying and viewing customer.

That notion is officially outdated, and should be dead. Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy has criticized the president in the past, and was so intent on choosing his words correctly Monday, he read a statement. Then he added this: “The stick-to-sports crowd, couldn’t we say that with virtually anybody about anything? So when you say that, what are you saying? As an athlete, you’re too stupid to speak out, but it’s OK for business people to speak out? Or you don’t want anybody to speak out?”

It’s a question more and more in the sports world are asking. Golden State’s Stephen Curry said he wouldn’t accept an invitation to the White House as an NBA champion, which spurred Trump to fire back that any invitation was withdrawn.

Pointed words have from all corners of the NBA and NFL, including from LeBron James, defying the belief that superstars who sell products have too much to lose by speaking out. In a way, it’s another positive out of so much negativity, that one of the most-famous athletes on the planet now feels comfortable saying what he thinks.

James referred to Trump as “U Bum” in a tweet, and like many, sounded invigorated by the sports world’s response.

“I salute the NFL, the players, the coaches, the owners and the fans, it was unbelievable,” James said. “There was solidarity. There was no divide, no divide even from that guy that continues to try to divide us as people. Like I said on one of my social media platforms a couple days ago — the thing that frustrated me and pissed me off a little bit, he used the sports platform to try to divide us.”

There’s a wedge in America, as big as it’s ever been. Sports long has served as a unifying force, especially during difficult times, binding players and communities, celebrating inclusion and refuting division. Those ideals, and the people who practice them, are needed now more than ever.