As 3.5 million Americans languished without power in Puerto Rico this weekend, President Donald Trump turned his attention instead to NFL players who had decided to take a knee during the national anthem to protest injustice, bigotry, and police brutality in the U.S.
“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!’” the president bellowed at a rally for a special election in Alabama. The owners who fired players, Trump said, would quickly be among the most popular men in America.
Trump directed some of the harshest words of his presidency not at ascendant neo-Nazis or even opposition politicians, but peaceful NFL stars, many of them black, taking a knee to bring attention to a cause they care about deeply. What makes this so unique is that it wasn’t a Joe Biden hot mic moment: It was an intentional attack on free speech.
The outrage was instantaneous. Athletes and entertainers expressed their disgust. Soon, the remarks became a national, and even international, discussion.
Then came Sunday. It was the largest single day of protest in NFL history. Instead of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, 19 teams had about 200 players who participated in protests of some kind; many took a knee or had a seat during the national anthem. Three teams opted not to come out for the anthem at all.
And they weren’t alone: The protesting players were joined by owners, some of whom even decided to go down to the field to lock arms with their players as a form of solidarity. Front offices from team after team blasted Trump’s words at the Alabama rally in official press statements and tweeted infographics — all saying some version of how much they disagreed with Trump’s divisive tone or rhetoric.
And that’s where we have to pause.
The popular demands on NFL executives and owners to speak out against Trump seem strange. Most NFL owners and general managers are unknown to your average American. But here’s the thing: What Trump said about NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem was hardly different from what NFL owners have not only said, but actually done to Kaepernick.
And the team executives have been public about their feelings, though only while hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. Mike Freeman, of the sports site Bleacher Report, has been reporting on the intense hatred among NFL team front office employees.
One general manager told Freeman, of Kaepernick, that he estimated a clear majority of NFL front offices “genuinely hate him and can’t stand what he did” — kneeling for the national anthem. “They want nothing to do with him. They won’t move on.” The same general manager went on to say that many of the other teams’ executives were afraid to put Kaepernick on their roster because “Trump will tweet about the team.”
And that general manager was not alone. Another front office executive called Kaepernick “a traitor.” Yet another said, “He has no respect for our country. Fuck that guy.” Another executive said he would think about resigning his position if a team owner asked him to sign Kaepernick. One general manager summed up the feeling among NFL team executives: “In my career, I have never seen a guy so hated by front office guys as Kaepernick.”
All seven team executives interviewed by Freeman for one piece said they believed 90 to 95 percent of NFL front offices agreed with their harsh takes on Kaepernick. One even said Kaepernick was the most hated player since Rae Carruth, who is still in prison for plotting to murder his pregnant girlfriend.
Most of the comments came a year ago (and some this spring). What those team executives predicted has come true: Not a single team has signed Kaepernick, not even for the league minimum, not for a backup or third-string position. Kaepernick didn’t even get the chance to audition his skills in a workout. Even those teams who desperately needed a starter or an experienced backup, in the words of Minneapolis sportswriter Jim Souhan, “decided that they prefer comfortable losses to uneasy victories.”
Kaepernick has been effectively banned from the NFL by owners and management who hate his guts like they do traitors and murderers.
That’s why what happened yesterday was perplexing. Some of the team owners showing solidarity with their players had made million-dollar donations to Trump’s inaugural committee, knowing full well where he was coming from. And many of the same team executives who were releasing statements and locking arms in support of players have shown their own disdain for Kaepernick — some, presumably, were the same ones who trashed him to Bleacher Report, others simply failed to show Kaepernick solidarity by refusing to give him a shot at playing again.
Trump learned his disdain for protesting players from them. Way before he called protesting players sons of bitches, the team executives were saying, fuck Colin Kaepernick.
Never mind that Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, the two best quarterbacks in the game, say Kaepernick should be in the league. Never mind the fact that some teams are still winless with quarterbacks who are struggling through every single quarter. Before Trump said a single word in Alabama, those teams had already shut Kaepernick out.
What the NFL players did yesterday was genuine — real solidarity with one of their own. But what most of those team owners and general managers did was marketing. It was, in the words of ESPN’s Howard Bryant, “performance art.” It looked and felt real, but was as counterfeit as a $3 bill. These owners and general managers put on a beautiful show yesterday, but as long as Kaepernick, in the prime of his physical career, is unemployed, they clearly lack the courage of their convictions. Kaepernick should’ve been on the field yesterday.
In March, one general manager told Bleacher Report’s Freeman, “I think some teams also want to use Kaepernick as a cautionary tale to stop other players in the future from doing what he did.” Despite the owners and managers, they failed. This much is clear: Colin Kaepernick’s quiet bravery has sparked a movement that refuses to die.