When Donald Trump took the stage in Huntsville, Alabama last Friday in a rally for special election candidate Luther Strange, few anticipated that the 45th President of the United States would use the opportunity to attack the activism of professional athletes.
Yet that's exactly the topic Trump chose to rant about in front of the raucous Alabama crowd, “Wouldn't you love to see one of these National Football League owners when someone disrespects our flag to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired!'”
Trump is referring to NFL players who have recently knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racism. The symbolic action began with Colin Kaepernick last year, and this season many players have followed in his footsteps.
Taking a knee was controversial from the start. Many people argue that players who kneel for the “Star Spangled Banner” disrespect members of the military who have fought and continue to fight for the country.
But Trump’s comments took the debate to a whole new level. By attacking these players with such vitriolic, explicit language, Trump took what was once a somewhat significant schism and created a deep national divide that quickly incited anger and hatred.
These comments set the stage for this past NFL weekend, in which viewers around the world witnessed some one of the most politically charged sporting events in recent years. More than half of NFL players either kneeled, locked arms or raised fists during the anthem to protest Trump’s speech, and support those attacked by his comments.
In one of the more striking examples, almost the entire Pittsburgh Steelers team remained in their locker room for the national anthem before their game at the Chicago Bears.
Perhaps nothing was more impactful than the Dallas Cowboys’ response before their Monday Night Football matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. The entire team and the owner, Jerry Jones – one of the most influential, prominent members of the professional sports community – linked arms and knelt in the middle of the field in solidarity.
The image of the players, coaches and owner all kneeling together, regardless of background or race, served as a powerful response to Trump’s malicious comments.
Overall, players in the NFL stood together and took a firm stance against the comments Trump made, and supported those who have been protesting problems of racism and police brutality.
While military servicemembers deserve the utmost respect for the sacrifices they make for the people of this country, the truth of the matter is that they fight for the freedoms that make the United States so unique. Those freedoms include freedom of expression and the right to peacefully protest, which are exactly the rights that NFL players, coaches, and owners are exercising.
In the United States, sports have always been a common denominator. They provide the ability for people to forget about their differences and just enjoy the competition.
Former presidents have used professional sports to help bring the country together. From filling out March Madness brackets to welcoming champion teams to the White House, presidents have long been involved in sports in America. By associating with popular teams and athletes, presidents create a stronger bond with the American people.
This act of unity was best seen by President George W. Bush's response to the 9/11 attacks. Just over a month after the national tragedy, President Bush took the mound at Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
In a city still grieving from the tragic attacks and with immense terrorist threat still looming, Bush bravely emerged from the Yankees dugout, wearing a New York Fire Department jacket to cover his bullet-proof vest, as the whole country watched. He walked up to the mound calmly and confidently, offering a much-needed symbol of stability to the country during a trying time.
Then he wound up and delivered a perfect strike, and the crowd erupted into frenzied cheer. The morale boost Bush provided helped get the American people back on track.
Instead of following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Trump has done the opposite this week. Instead of letting sports be a place for Americans to come together, he cultured a toxic environment of disagreement and hatred.
In a time which appears to be a turning point in U.S. history, our country needs a leader who will unify, rather than divide the population. Trump’s comments further a discouraging trend of condemning anything he doesn't believe, rather than facilitating a conversation which could actually work to try to solve the problems we face as a nation.
By kneeling and protesting the anthem, these NFL players were simply trying create a conversation in order to change the horrible realities of racism and police brutality. Playing in the NFL gives them a platform to protest, and they took the opportunity to act.
The message that members of the NFL sent this weekend was incredibly powerful, and their response should be praised. They took a stand against a powerful bully and showed this country what can and must be done in the face of adversity.