United States: Support for protesting sportspeople surging

Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem beofre an NFL game on October 8.
Thursday, October 12, 2017

United States President Donald Trump has tried to focus the nation’s ire on anti-racist Black athletes. He tried to demonise them on the highest possible stage, calling for them to lose their jobs.

His transparent aim was to find a bogeyman to distract people from a cascade of scandal and failed legislation, and his administration’s disastrous response to the suffering in Puerto Rico.

Well, the results of this idiotic effort are in.

First and foremost, it has provoked death threats aimed at numerous NFL players, an unconscionable result that falls right on this president’s shoulders. One Trump supporter with a huge Twitter following even linked the horrific Las Vegas shooting to “the same mentality” as these players.

Second, despite Trump’s smirking line that “this is not about race”, many Black players and coaches have been showered with racial invective across social media. But despite a fusillade of abuse, and NFL owners working overtime to change the meaning of these protests to anything other than what they actually were, something remarkable has happened.

Even though these brave athletes have been called anti-US, anti-military and anti–apple pie, public opinion has shifted in their favour.

USA Today poll — and I am still stunned reading these results — found: “Most Americans say the protests by NFL players during the National Anthem are appropriate, a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds, and they say, by overwhelming margins, that President Trump’s heated criticism of them are not.”

The numbers to back that up — in these draining, dark times — are cause for hope. By a margin of 51% to 42%, people say the players’ protests are “appropriate.”

Sixty-eight percent of respondents say that Trump’s call for games to be boycotted and players fired are “inappropriate”. That includes one-third of Republicans. There is a racial divide, but 44% of white people support the protests.

In addition, there is another poll, this one produced by Seton Hall Sports, that shows that 84% of respondents support the players’ right to protest, with only 16% saying players should be required to stand for the anthem.

This represents a striking shift towards the players’ side since Trump’s comments. Last year, when Colin Kaepernick and a select few players were taking a knee, 72% of Americans said that they thought Kaepernick’s behaviour was unpatriotic. Another 61% said that they did not “support the stance Colin Kaepernick is taking and his decision not to stand during the national anthem”.

What conclusions can we draw? The first and most obvious is that Trump is poison. He’s a profane bully whose ugliness pushed people into supporting the players and their right to protest — even if the reasons for the protest have received less attention from the moment Trump jumped into the fray.

The second conclusion is that solidarity matters. Seeing almost 200 players take part in protests altered how people consumed these acts.

The protests may have been met with boos in some stadiums, but if you’ve ever been to an NFL game, you know that the typical in stadium fan represents a very narrow slice of this country: wealthy enough to afford tickets, parking and $10 beers, as well as overwhelmingly white (and the copious booze doesn’t help).

Solidarity and struggle change public opinion. It’s always been that way, and it will always be that way. We forget that because we think social media platforms such as Twitter are public opinion, when actually they represent profoundly distorted windows, warped by professional trolls, bots and, most of all, those with the time and emotional energy to spend all day on Twitter.

Lastly, the entrance of Trump also turned this into a referendum on whether the president should be able to squelch dissent and curse out those with whom he disagrees. It’s heartening that most people say no to this.

It’s also miles from the original point of these protests: that we desperately need police reform in this country. The fact that police shootings are up this year has not made a dent in this conversation.

Refocusing attention on this fact is the urgent task of everyone on the field and off. This is about Tamir Rice, not Donald Trump. The more it’s about Trump, no matter what the poll numbers say, the more we stand to lose.

[Slightly abridged from Edge of Sports.]

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