Robert Gehl reports that the battle lines are being drawn and Sports Illustrated has taken a side.
The venerable sports-news magazine has declared that so long as the National Anthem is going to be played at the start of any game, that game becomes inherently political.
And because it’s political, the right to protest is inherent.
Writer Charles Pierce defended political protests during football games, invoking an incident in 1960, when a black pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, James “Mudcat” Grant changed the last line of the “Star Spangled Banner” to read “This land is not so free / I can’t go to Mississippi.”
Grant was suspended by the team’s manager and never played again.
“I mention all this in support of one of several things to which you must stipulate if you’re going to talk sensibly about the controversy that blew up over the weekend,” he wrote.
He then made several points that put himself – and Sports Illustrated magazine – squarely on one side of the debate:
1) The inclusion of a national anthem—any national anthem—in a sporting event necessarily politicizes that event. Historically, this is best demonstrated by protests at the Olympic Games. Everyone remembers Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968. But few remember Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Caslavska, who bowed her head and looked away from the Soviet flag while sharing the top spot on the medal podium with the U.S.S.R.’s Larisa Petrik at the same Games, only two months after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring revolt of 1968. When Caslavska got home, she was investigated by the new government and forbidden to travel or compete for several years.
2) The protests of today are not about the anthem or the flag or the troops, or even about Donald Trump. The protestors are high-profile African-American athletes raising awareness of how lower-profile African-Americans are often mistreated by police officers.
3) All effective protest is inconvenient and, in its own way, uncivil. The Boston Tea Party was an act of vandalism. Critics’ appeal to “find a better way to protest” is really a call for self-sabotage, and it’s a dodge that dates back to the Olive Branch Petition of 1775.
4) The wealthy athletes protesting worked much harder for their money than the president in question ever has for his.
The owners, Pierce said, are standing behind their players because they believe they have “free-speech” rights. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that Trump’s comments were “divisive,” and also is standing behind the players.
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” Goodell said in a statement. “There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”
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