The 1960s and ’70s saw a hurricane of political athletes: legends like Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Curt Flood, and Billie Jean King. But nothing, literally nothing, in the history of sports and politics can compare to what happened on Sunday.
Expressions of dissent broke out in every single NFL game during the playing of the national anthem. Some players kneeled, some sat, some raised fists, and some linked arms. But all of them were standing in opposition to Donald Trump. Announcers and commentators discussed their actions sympathetically. The booing one might expect from fans was sparse. Two anthem singers—a black man in Detroit and a white woman in Tennessee—took a knee during the last note of the song. How did this happen? How did the sport that—from ownership down—has historically been associated with the most conservative politics see this maelstrom of united discontent?
It starts with Colin Kaepernick, and it ends with understanding the “brotherhood” that exists in NFL locker rooms. Kaepernick, of course, is the blackballed (or whiteballed) free-agent NFL quarterback who took a knee and protested during the anthem last season to highlight the issue of police violence. I can say unequivocally from my reporting that, while only a small group of NFL players joined Kaepernick in this protest last season, the respect he garnered throughout the community of players for doing it week after week for four straight months, weathering all kinds of brutal criticism, was deep. Kaepernick lit the match. It was kept alight earlier this season by players like Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett, Philadelphia Eagle Malcolm Jenkins, Oakland Raider Marshawn Lynch, and a dozen members of the Cleveland Browns and others, but the gasoline was poured upon this flame by Donald Trump on Friday. People no doubt are aware of what should be known as “the Alabama speech,” in which he called for protesting NFL players to be fired and referred to anyone who protested as a “son of a bitch.”
This is where we get to the question of solidarity. Donald Trump never played football, and therefore does not understand what Bennett calls “the brotherhood.” Football players are very tight-knit as a community. It’s certainly not always a positive solidarity, most pointedly seen in the reticence of players to speak out when a teammate commits an act of violence against women, as well as in the pressure to play when hurt, which often comes from your “brothers,” not coaches. But this “brotherhood” also means that when someone threaten the livelihoods of the players and disrespect their families, they will stand as one.