In a speech in Alabama, President Donald Trump’s made incendiary statements about NFL players who protest by taking a knee during the national anthem. A day later, Trump responded to NBA superstar Stephen Curry’s statement about not wanting to visit the White House by dis-inviting his championship team, the Golden State Warriors, from visiting the White House.
Trump’s verbal barrage against black professional athletes who are peacefully exercising their constitutional rights has ironically galvanized them to speak out and to protest even more.
In the 2016 NFL season, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during pre-game national anthems to protest police violence and inequalities in America.
In his Alabama speech, Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that these comments about the NFL players were as bad as anything that Trump has said up until this point. He went on to state, “You’re talking about young men who are peacefully protesting police brutality and racism.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke out forcefully against these statements and even New England Patriots owner and Trump supporter Robert Kraft had critical words for the president. Other NFL owners and coaches have also come out against Trump’s inflammatory statements. But it is the collective consciousness of black professional athletes that is unique.
Not since the late 1960s have we seen so many black athletes express this level of political consciousness. Those expressing outrage at Trump’s statements range from retired legends to dozens of active players: Reggie Jackson, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Richard Sherman, LeBron James, Martellus Bennett, Chris Paul and many more.
Trump’s statements reflect the sentiment of many white fans who become angry when they see expressions of consciousness from black athletes. They want these athletes to “shut up and just play.” And it seems that anytime blacks “get out of their lane” and express a level of political consciousness, they become pariahs. Consequently, black athletes have been more or less socialized to be nonpolitical.
The period from 1968 to 1972 was the only time in American sports history that black athletes were outwardly committed to the struggle for black liberation and equality. In 1968, “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” led by Dr. Harry Edwards, was widespread. Their activism reflected the sociopolitical environment of the era. The symbolic highlight of this movement was when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the medal podium during the 1968 Olympics.
Michael Jordan was infamous for being nonpolitical — for not offending people who might buy his shoes. That day seems to be gone now. On Sunday, in a show of unity, many NFL players displayed their solidarity with Kaepernick and against Trump by taking a knee during the national anthem. Trump urged fans to leave the stadium if players took a knee.
In a dramatic display of solidarity and defiance against Trump in London, players and coaches from the Baltimore Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars locked arms and knelt while the “Star Spangle Banner” played and stood for “God Save the Queen.” Most teams, players and coaches showed some form of solidarity on Sunday whether it was kneeling, sitting, locking arms, raising fists or staying in the locker room during the national anthem.
The problem in the past has been that blacks have been figuratively and literally assassinated for speaking out against social injustice in America. But with the support of institutions like the NFL and NBA and their commissioners, change could be on the horizon.
With the rise of the prison-industrial complex, racial profiling, the extraordinary racial disparities in the criminal justice system, failing schools, ubiquitous black poverty and the incessant incidents of police brutality, black athletes have a lot to protest in American society.
The socialization of the black athlete to be politically apathetic, passive and unconscious has been remarkably effective. This has been a tragic phenomenon given the constant crises and peril in which the black community finds itself. Because professional black athletes have enormous leverage, influence, and power to change the condition of those in their communities, it is incumbent on them to find nonviolent, symbolic, substantive and meaningful ways to use their collective voice, as did their predecessors of the late 1960s and early 1970s, to fight for change.
President Trump has unwittingly ignited the consciousness of many subgroups in America, of which professional black athletes are among the most influential. The collective consciousness of these athletes, if sustained, could be consequential for Trump and politics in America.