ATHENS -- You have no idea how I voted in the last Presidential election. You can try to guess, but there’s a good chance you’ll be wrong. I like to think I’ve kept political comment to a minimum over my almost 40 years in this business, and not because I don’t have beliefs. (I do.) But there’s a reason these missives show up in the sports section. I write about sports.
Sometimes, though, sports overflow their banks. Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem was one time. I wrote about that. North Carolina’s Bathroom Bill was another. I wrote about that, too. But even those few times when I’ve stepped outside my nominal jurisdiction, I’ve tried not to be partisan. I’m not here to tell you how to vote. You have the same privilege I do. You’re free to exercise it as you choose.
But here I sit in Sanford Stadium, and I’m thinking not about Georgia and Mississippi State and the color and pageantry of college football. I’m wondering what impelled the most powerful man in the world to pick a fight even he cannot win. I’m wondering if the President of the United States of America really wants to be the President of a United States of America.
In the past few hours, our President has ripped Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Our President then ripped any NFL player – not just Kaepernick, currently unemployed – who doesn’t stand at attention for the National Anthem. Quoth our President: “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!' "
I realize the flag is a heated issue. My dad was in the first American unit to liberate Dachau. My son-in-law was stationed in Afghanistan. But – sorry to get trite here – the reason Americans go to war is because they believe the American Way is an ideal worth preserving. A pillar of that American Way is the freedom of speech, which carries with it the right to protest. This isn't an original thought, but if some folks hadn’t started chucking tea into Boston Harbor, our anthem would be, “God Save The Queen.”
Regarding this President, the word “unprecedented” has been invoked so often as to have become as common as “the” and “and.” But this really was new – a sitting American President taking on the most popular American athlete (Curry) and the most popular American sport (pro football). Teddy Roosevelt called being President “a bully pulpit,” and certainly we all pay attention – whether we like it or not – when this President speaks/Tweets, but NBA and NFL players have an even bigger pulpit. We watch their games. We pay to see them perform. We buy their merchandise. We don’t really know them, but we like to think we do.
It’s one thing to goad a North Korean dictator – maybe not a great thing, but a different thing. I cannot for the life of me see the percentage in going after some of the most recognized American citizens for having the courage of their convictions. Maybe you disagree with the Athem protests. That’s your right. But it’s their right to do it. Maybe you wish it weren’t. But, borrowing from John Mellencamp, ain’t that America?
This is how crazy our world has gotten: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who often comes across as a ninny, offered a statement in rebuttal that sounded Rushmore-ready: “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.”
And what is our President doing? Playing to his base? We note that the fire-the-kneeling-bums speech was delivered in Huntsville, Ala. At last check, Alabama folks like their college football. Some of those collegians become professionals. One was the NFL MVP in 2015. One plays wideout for the Atlanta Falcons. If either takes a knee before tomorrow’s games – not saying either will, just posing a hypothetical – do they become fire-worthy bums?
This President became President by not caring what anybody who wasn’t a supporter thought of him. In eight months and three days on the job, this President has dared any non-supporter to cast a kind thought his way. Sometimes sports becomes more than sports: Jesse Owens in Berlin, Muhammad Ali before the Supreme Court, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City. This President just ensured that this has become such a time.
As LeBron James Tweeted, “He’s now using sports as the platform to try to divide us.” We say again: Our President is supposed to be the President of a United States of America. He seems bent on making it anything but.