By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only include what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate negroes or not, but I know that we have a Christian church which is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, that the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.” — James Baldwin on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1968
The NFL is an institution. It’s explicitly American, and even if the Jacksonville Jaguars move to England, they’ll merely be a McDonald’s franchise with helmets.
The Shield has long collectively supplanted our crucifix or Star of David, and as a religious organization that was until recently tax exempt, it echoes Baldwin’s words. Of course, there isn’t a chasm between the colors of skin of the game’s fans — all shades high five in its stadiums. Those donning the pads are disproportionately African-American, though this isn’t a sign of progress as much as it’s a reflection of who’s worthy of masked gladiator status, sacrificing well-being for our amusement, regardless of the flimsy, coded argument that “America allowed these boys their successes.”
The display that NFL players coordinated Sunday and the league-wide affront to the sitting president of the United States, Donald Trump, who tried to make what was a protest of systematic injustice instead about him — as he is wont to do about anything that aggravates him — was historic while reaction to it highlighted that segregation.
Sunday decimated the talking point that sports aren’t political (they’ve always been). Sunday was a stand against the commander-in-chief who seeks to galvanize his base and who spent the day tweeting through it while Puerto Rico has no electricity. A scramble ensued by paid talkers who had always assumed that millionaires would eventually “know their roles” and not demonstrate on behalf of the oppressed in this country.
The discussion of the protests is a complex one, but at no point has it been about the flag. Not for a second has it been anti-military. And the military doesn’t fight and die for a flag. Actual veterans will tell you this simply and clearly, no matter how many people want to corrupt the discussion into it being something that involved hoisting Pat Tillman’s half-told legacy up a pole when Tillman would’ve literally mocked every critic of protesters today.
For those who take issue with sports protests of the anthem — which have been going on for a while in the WNBA and have now reached MLB — the convenient way to deride them is to say they disrespect military. This has been constantly proved wrong with numerous testimonials of veterans and the #VeteransForKaepernick hashtag going on for more than a year.
NASCAR, by the way, the sports league with a culture very much overlapping that of the Confederate flag, made it clear that perceived protests during the anthem at its events won’t be tolerated. That move comes despite one of its biggest names tweeting in support of peaceful protests. And yet, without anyone kneeling, somehow its TV ratings have dropped to 17-year lows.
The flag is an inanimate object. It can’t feel disrespect. It isn’t a soldier, and it isn’t what a soldier fights for, despite the weird symbolism that it has taken on. But throwing out “the troops” as a trump card has become the de facto defense against comfortable people being confronted with uncomfortable truths.
Spare me the NFL owners participating in “solidarity” services Sunday with the players while grossly mislabeling what players are doing as calls for unity. Texans owner Bob McNair issued a statement condemning Trump’s calls for private citizens to be fired for exercising their First Amendment rights. McNair donated more than a million dollars to Trump’s campaign and a super PAC behind it. Patriots owner Bob Kraft at some point will jet set with Trump again despite his “deep disappointment” over his words.
Garbage weasel Dan Snyder of the Washington team locked arms super awkwardly with the players who he’d penalize if they pointed out the hypocrisy of his team’s name. Snyder has also given a million bucks to Trump’s campaign, as has Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, another arm-locker Sunday, who since the election has been aghast that the guy who ran on a platform of nationalism and xenophobia then strangely banned immigrants.
Even Bears chairman George McCaskey managed to make speaking out feel like wet jeans.
The owners don’t care about the meaning of players’ statements. They care about good PR and have begun to realize that indifference to or condemnation of athletes using their celebrity and nationally televised platform to bring attention to real injustices affecting many marginalized people is going to put rich dudes in suits on the wrong side of history.
Like Joe Sheehan said, “Team owners are, collectively, people who think the state should pay for their ballpark but not your heart medication.” They aren’t on the side of good, and it’s not about the flag to them either.
The flag as grievous offense is a red, white and blue herring, something to drape oneself in as a shield to having discussions about race and poverty and criminal justice that so many of us put in more work avoiding than we would engaging. To demonize the players for “disrespecting” an inanimate object is just another in a long line of bastardization of the flag itself.
Twitter user @koopa_kinte put together a list of ways we violate official flag code all the time, particularly during football games. They include the giant flags stretched flat across a field, wearing the flag as literal clothing, plastering it on beer cans, sewing it on cushions and forcing it into an unholy marriage of sports apparel.
But hypocrisy when it comes to what’s acceptable patriotism/consumerism and what isn’t really is nothing new.
“If any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds,” James Baldwin said. “When a black man says exactly the same thing — word for word — he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad n***er so there won’t be any more like him.”
Now apply that to this past Sunday, where many a “son of a bitch,” per the words of the supposed leader of the free world about his own fellow citizens and their free speech, demonstrated on behalf of liberty and death. Tell me Josh Norman is concerned about a flag.
Then tell me Michael Thomas is taking issue with a flag.
More than once over the weekend, the president has referred to it as “our flag,” a telling use of pronoun. A flag that flies every Thursday, Sunday and Monday in 16 mega-churches in major cities representing a faith that’s demonstrably segregated. A flag that is decidedly “ours” to a certain faction of Americans and who choose not to try to see athlete protests in terms of anything outside of perceived disrespect and selfishness.
Which makes what should be pretty obvious so difficult for “them” to understand. It’s not about a precious flag, “yours” or otherwise.
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.