By Dan Bernstein —
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) There will be ample time to discern any meaning from the Bears’ bizarre 23-17 overtime victory against the Steelers at Soldier Field on Sunday and to figure out exactly what was going on out there if such things are possible. That it was as abnormal a football game as we have seen in recent memory was appropriate, on a day marked by broader and much more important issues than blocking and tackling.
History was made across the NFL on Sunday, starting with the early kickoff in London, as a one-man protest against discriminatory police practices and racial oppression suddenly became a larger movement due to the inflammatory comments made by a president bent on whipping up his white-supremacist political base with public attacks on black athletes.
It was at yet another campaign rally in Alabama on Friday night where Donald Trump careened into discussing Colin Kaepernick, exhorting his faithful against “those people” taking a knee during the national anthem to shine a light on violent injustice.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects the flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now – out – he’s fired,” Trump said.
Condemnation ensued from the NFLPA, the league itself and via crafted statements by individual teams, as athletes across professional sports clapped back with visceral intensity through both social and traditional media. Trump retreated to Twitter to spray his usual potshots as he watched TV, urging fans to boycott NFL games.
The watershed day saw the pregame anthems televised by the major networks, allowing viewers the sight of players kneeling in support of Kaepernick all over the league, with the Associated Press reporting that in the early games alone more than 130 players sat, knelt or raised a fist in the air. The Seattle Seahawks chose to sit out the ritual as a team, saying, “We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country.”
Contrast this with the cop-out chosen by the Steelers to skip the anthem as a team not as a statement but to remove the discomfort associated with having the spotlight on players’ individual decisions. Coach Mike Tomlin effectively infantilized an entire locker room full of adults, apparently not understanding or not caring that such difficulty is exactly the point of a public protest movement.
Some teams chose to link arms in a relatively useless demonstration of “unity,” blandly appearing to do something instead of nothing and allowing for a watered-down endorsement of Kaepernick and others against Trump’s innate desire to inflame his precious racists. But the nebulous concept of unity abstracts the real concern of racial inequity in this moment, giving the NFL the same kind of dodge that focus on concussions provides in discussing how football causes brain damage.
Trump is fighting a culture war and using black athletes as symbols for some ungrateful and dangerous “other” that’s not only to blame for the unhappiness of his political base but deserves no standing as equal Americans with the freedom to exercise their rights. He has dropped the dog whistle and is bellowing directly to the dogs, using our deep connections as sports fans as a conduit for his noxious demagoguery.
Sunday turned into a culmination of a weekend of emotional response from the very people Trump tries to demonize, catalyzing this conflict into something that will and should continue to deserve attention and careful, honest thought. He injected himself and his divisive politics directly into football, and players are showing that they will use their platform as they see fit, with the officially stated support of their union, their league and their individual employers.
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs didn’t mince words about it.
“We stand with our brothers,” he said. “They have the right and we knelt with them today. To protest, non-violent protest is as American as it gets, so we knelt with them today to let them know that we’re a unified front. There ain’t no dividing us. I guess we’re all son-of-a-bitches.”