President Donald Trump’s racist tirade against black professional athletes on Friday night, when he presided over an overwhelmingly white rally in a state without a single professional sports team (Alabama), has awakened the sleeping giant of risk-averse owners of National Football League franchises. Or so the sports-media complex would have us believe. Sunday morning on ESPN, one talking head after another denounced Trump for saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired.’” Viewers were assured that the league, and everyone whose working lives depend on it, was united in opposition to the president.
This chorus included Rex Ryan, the brassy former coach who last year introduced Trump at an April 2006 rally in Buffalo by saying, “There’s so many things I admire about Mr. Trump, but one thing I really admire about him is, you know what, he’ll say what’s on his mind. So many times, you’ll see people, a lot of people want to say the same thing. But there’s a big difference. They don’t have the courage to say it. They all think it, but they don’t have the courage to say it. And Donald Trump certainly has the courage to say it, and that’s what I respect.” Speaking on Sunday NFL Countdown today, he said, “I’m pissed off, I’ll be honest with you, because I supported Donald Trump.” He referenced his rally speech last year, and added, “But I’m reading these comment and it’s appalling to me, and I’m sure it’s appalling to almost any citizen in our country. It should be. I mean, calling our players SOBs and all of that kind of stuff.... I apologize for being pissed off, but guess what, that’s it. I’m associated with what Donald Trump stands for. I never signed up for that.”
But you did sign up for that, Rex. And so did you, Robert Kraft. The New England Patriots owner, who donated $1 million for Trump’s inauguration and gave him a Super Bowl ring engraved with his name, said in a statement on Sunday, “I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday…. There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics. I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal. Our players are intelligent, thoughtful and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”
One might be tempted to conclude that it’s finally beginning to dawn on pro-Trump NFL owners that it’s not Colin Kaepernick who’s divisive, but our nation’s president. But these anodyne statements are much too little, too late. Ryan, Trump, and the many other Trump supporters in the league—eight owners contributed a combined $7.25 million to his inauguration—had all the information necessary to make a correct moral judgment about him before he became president. Trump is a racist, and has long been known as such. That Kraft and his ilk are only coming out against Trump now makes clear that their stance is not against systemic racism in America, but against attacks on the league’s players.
Owners’ calls for unity are nothing but a shallow attempt to placate a workforce whose ruinous jobs reap hundreds of millions for their organizations. The goal is merely to keep the growing players’ protest from spreading further. So there is only one appropriate response from the players today. It’s time to stop asking why some NFL players are kneeling, and start asking why so many of them are standing.