By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) It’s not just about police violence. It’s not just what stars and stripes subjectively represent for you, me or veterans. And this past weekend horrifically reaffirmed that.
Marshawn Lynch of the Raiders sat during the national anthem in his team’s preseason game Saturday. He told coach Jack Del Rio that he’s been sitting for the anthem for 11 years (which has been disputed but isn’t important, all things considered).
Michael Bennett of the Seahawks sat during the national anthem in his team’s preseason game Sunday. He said he plans to do this for the entire season and explained at length.
“I want to be able to use this platform to continuously push the message … of how unselfish you can be as a society,” Bennett said. “How we can continuously love one another and understand that people are different; and just because they’re different, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t like them. Because they don’t smell the way you smell and they don’t eat what you eat, because they don’t pray to the same god that you pray to, doesn’t mean that you should hate them. Whether it’s Muslim or Buddhists or Christianity, whatever it is, I just want people to understand that no matter what we’re in this thing together. It’s more about being a human being at this point.”
These protests aren’t going away. Again, they’re not something seeking to be divisive, though many will certainly read it that way because their default settings are so rusted in place. It’s a call to acknowledge many layered societal issues and how merely knowing they exist, shaking our heads and moving on with our days isn’t going to cut it anymore. Because when we beg these players to just let us watch the damn game Sunday and then Monday pressure the sportswriter to just talk about the game and Tuesday plead with the radio station to just stick to sports, eventually Friday and Saturday happen.
In Charlottesville, Virginia on the campus of a university and in the streets of a supposedly progressive town, Friday and Saturday involved hate and violence and death. White supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied and marched on behalf of reclaiming an America they feel they’re losing, fueled by the town’s plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, saint of the Confederacy and a garbage person whom history has repeatedly attempted to whitewash in more glowing terms, much like the battle flag his loyalists also use as a safety blanket.
There is a reason why statues of Confederate generals are still powerful political symbols; a reason why a candidate came a hair’s breadth from securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Virginia by campaigning to preserve them. The statues in public squares, the names on street signs, the generals honored with military bases — these are the ways in which we, as a society, tell each other what we value and build the common heritage around which we construct a nation.
The white nationalists who gathered in Charlottesville saw this perhaps more clearly than the rest of us. They understood the stakes of what they were defending. They knew that Lee was honored not for making peace per se, but for defending a society built upon white supremacy — first by taking up arms, and then when the war was lost, by laying them down in such a way as to preserve what he could.
An NFL player might not specifically mention a memorial to treasonous men who lost a war defending slavery, but it’s part of standing up by sitting. Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman tweeted on Sunday that he’d heard more player protests are expected this season.
President Donald Trump, in the aftermath of murderous physical and psychological violence initiated by white supremacists, refused to condemn them by name and instead grouped them with “all sides” before shifting to stroking himself for the economy. He gave credence to the ignorant argument that the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-fascists are the equivalent to actual fascists. An athlete sitting during the anthem is about more than a song or a flag or your relative who fought in WWII while Jim Crow continued in America unabated.
Americans were quick to unite on social media and in the streets of cities across the country to condemn the white supremacist American Nazis like Richard Spencer, Baked Alaska and James Fields, the latter of whom has been charged with the murder of Heather Heyer and the injuring of several others after ramming a car into a crowd of mostly counter-protesters standing up to supporters of a nightmare reality painted as Lee’s Dixie dream.
#ThisIsNotUs became the organic rallying cry, with the horrified audience absolving itself and its supposedly different vision of America from that of the overt racists. That hashtag, of course, ignored American history and that white nationalists and terrorism against those who resist them is what “us” has been for this country’s entire history.
In fact, Charlottesville, while it is home to many progressive people, skillfully models the exact sort of coercive propriety and self-exculpation from the legacy of American racism that has allowed white supremacy to publicly reemerge.
What happened in Charlottesville is less an aberrant travesty in a progressive enclave than it is a reminder of how much evil can be obscured by the appearance of good.
And so there will be more anthem protests in the NFL this year. And so more players will refuse to stick to sports, like Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles, who played college football at Virginia.
Right and wrong. Social justice. A woman died Saturday fighting for it, joining a long list of Americans who have died at the hands of other Americans while putting real lives of others ahead of a flag or a song and a romanticism of this country’s history.
“Heather, her entire life has been passionate about justice for everyone and fairness and fair treatment and you better be able to explain to her why something was true and not true and why it had to be that way,” Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said Sunday.
“It was important to her to speak up for people that she felt were not being heard, to speak up when injustices were happening and she saw in the lives of many of her African-American friends particularly and her gay friends that equal rights were not being given.”
That’s a description sounds a lot like the stance of a quarterback who remains unsigned by an NFL team. (The Baltimore Ravens signed Thaddeus Lewis on Monday morning, and he hasn’t played since 2013 and has seven career appearances, by the way.) Was she also protesting the wrong way? Heyer seems to have been the type of social justice warrior often derided by that large segment of this country that would prefer to see no evil and hear no evil and wonder why these NFL players think people got it so bad.
And she died for it. Other Americans are dying every day for what she marched for.
So more athletes will sit for her, standing up for what she represents and the many very real things an anthem protest stands for.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.