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Take the Knee: Athletes Unite in Historic Protest Against Racism & Police Brutality, Defying Trump

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In the biggest display of athletic defiance in years, football teams across the nation protested President Donald Trump after he attacked the NFL, NBA and some of their most popular athletes for daring to draw attention to racism and police violence. We look at the unprecedented role of political activism among athletes under the Trump presidency and the politics of playing the national anthem at games. We speak with Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of several books, including “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” reissued this year for its 50th anniversary edition. He was the architect of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights and is a longtime staff consultant with the San Francisco 49ers. We’re also joined by Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine, who notes that playing the national anthem before games has a long and hallowed history that goes back to the days of “Jersey Shore” and Justin Bieber.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In the biggest display of athletic defiance for decades, football teams across the nation protested President Donald Trump after he attacked the NFL, NBA and some of their most popular athletes for daring to draw attention to racism and police violence by taking the knee during the national anthem. At a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, Friday evening, Trump lashed out at players who have joined this growing protest movement, that, well, in its latest incarnation was started by the former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, against racial injustice, kneeling during the national anthem. Trump made the comments while stumping for Senator Luther Strange to replace Jeff Sessions in a close Republican primary in Alabama.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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!”? Wouldn’t you love it?

AUDIENCE: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, “That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.” And that owner—they don’t know it. They don’t know. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know. They’ll be the most popular person for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country, because that’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for, OK?

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s speech took place in the city of Huntsville, a couple hours from where Alabama’s Governor George Wallace openly embraced segregation in his 1963 inaugural address. During his remarks, Trump urged football fans to turn off their TVs when athletes protest during the national anthem.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But you know what’s hurting the game more than that? When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they’re playing our great national anthem.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee, things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s comments come immediately—well, Trump’s comments immediately drew outrage and criticism. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement, quote, “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect.” The NFL Players Association President Eric Winston said Trump’s comments were, quote, “a slap in the face to the civil rights heroes of the past and present.” Former NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin told ABC News he and other athletes are concerned about Trump’s “hate speech.”

ANQUAN BOLDIN: I think the president’s words are real divisive. I don’t like the hate speech that is coming out of his mouth. Neither do the players in the locker room. So, I think, as a league, we need to stand together and show that we’re all about uniting one another and not the divisive rhetoric that’s coming out of the mouth of the president.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahead of a series of NFL games Sunday, Trump again urged football fans to boycott NFL games unless clubs punish players who protest during the national anthem. He tweeted, “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend! NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”

Trump’s comments sparked nationwide protests, with players on most teams participating in some form of protest ahead of Sunday games. NFL players who kneeled and locked arms during the national anthem included members of the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants. Super Bowl champions New England Patriots also protested, with white quarterback Tom Brady interlocking arms with teammates of color as others kneeled. Several players and staff from the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens also knelt in defiance [ahead] of a game in London. Journalist Shaun King noted 27 players and staff from both teams participated in the protest, making it the “most ever in one game,” he wrote. And nearly the entire Pittsburgh Steelers team sat out the national anthem in the locker room ahead of their game against the Chicago Bears, who stood on the sidelines with their arms locked in solidarity.

Meanwhile, during game one of the WNBA Finals, the Lynx linked arms during the national anthem, while the Sparks stayed in their locker room.

The protests spread to baseball teams, as well, with the Oakland Athletics’ Bruce Maxwell becoming the first Major League player to kneel during the national anthem, on Saturday night. Maxwell was born on an Army base; his father is in the military. He told reporters he was, quote, “kneeling for people that don’t have a voice.”

And on Saturday, legendary musician Stevie Wonder joined protesting athletes by kneeling on stage before his performance at the Global Citizen Festival.

Meanwhile, Trump also took aim at the NBA, rescinding an invitation to basketball champions the Golden State Warriors to visit the White House, after the team’s star player, Steph Curry, said he would not attend. Curry told reporters he and some of his teammates disagree with Trump and, quote, “the things that he’s said and the things that he hasn’t said in the right times.” In response, Trump tweeted, quote, “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” This is Curry responding to Trump’s Twitter attack.

STEPHEN CURRY: It’s kind of, I mean, surreal, to be honest. I mean, just I don’t know why he feels the need to target certain individuals, you know, rather than others. I have an idea of why, but it’s kind of—it’s just kind of beneath, I think, a leader of a country to go that route. It’s not what leaders do. So, like I said, we have amazing people in this league that have spoken up on both sides of the conversation. The amount of support and encouragement I saw this morning around the league was unbelievable, from all types of players.

AMY GOODMAN: The Golden State Warriors say they’ll visit Washington, D.C., but skip the White House and instead, quote, “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion,” unquote. Trump’s tweet also drew a sharp rebuke from NBA superstar LeBron James, one of the nation’s best-known athletes. He tweeted at Trump, quote, “U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going! So therefore ain’t no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” James posted this video on his Instagram account on Saturday. As of Sunday evening, it had been viewed over 2 million times.

LEBRON JAMES: You look at him kind of asking, you know, the NFL owners to get rid of players off the field because they’re exercising their rights, and that’s not right. And then, you know, when I wake up, I see that a colleague of mine has been uninvited—of something that he said he didn’t even want to go to in the first place—you know, to the White House. You know, that’s just something I can’t stand for, man. And we’ve got, you know, Jemele Hill and Colin Kaepernick, and, you know, all these people are speaking up, and it’s for the greater cause. It’s for us to all come together. It’s not about a division. It’s not about dividing. We, as American people, need to actually just come together even more stronger, man, because this is a very critical time. And me being in the position I am, I had to voice this to y’all. So, love y’all, man.

AMY GOODMAN: Basketball star LeBron James. Meanwhile, Sunday, even some of the anthem singers participated in the protests during the NFL games. In Motown, before the Lions game at Ford Field, singer Rico Lavelle performed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” pausing between “home of the” and “brave” to drop to his right knee and raise his left hand in a fist, a move that recalled the Black Power salute of U.S. Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

RICO LAVELLE: [singing] For the land of the free and the home of the brave.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by three guests: Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology, University of California, Berkeley, adviser to Colin Kaepernick; we’ll also be speaking with sportswriter Dave Zirin; and we’ll be speaking with former NFL star Donté Stallworth. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s Stevie Wonder performing Saturday night at the Global Citizen concert in Central Park. That was after he took both knees, as he said it, for America and for the world. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

In the biggest display of athletic defiance in years, sports teams across the nation—football, baseball and basketball—protested President Donald Trump after he attacked the NFL, the NBA and some of their most popular athletes for daring to draw attention to racism and police violence.

We go now to get response. We’re joined by three people. In Palo Alto, California, we’re joined by Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at University of California, Berkeley, author of a number of books, including The Revolt of the Black Athlete, reissued this year for its 50th anniversary edition. He was the architect of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights, longtime staff consultant with the San Francisco 49ers, where he worked with Colin Kaepernick. In Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Donté Stallworth, a sports commentator, former NFL player who spent 10 years in the league. And also with us, Dave Zirin, a sports editor for The Nation magazine. His latest piece, “For the NFL, It was 'Choose Your Side Sunday.'”

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Harry Edwards, let’s begin with you. Have you seen anything like this, in one day, yesterday, what happened across this country and beyond?

HARRY EDWARDS: Oh, absolutely not. I mean, in the 1960s, you had pockets of athletes who were engaged in political activities, some of the greatest sports personalities in the history of this country, but there was nothing on this scale. Mr. Trump has managed to precipitate something that all of us, activists and intellectuals and media types, would never have been able to achieve, through his ignorance, impulsiveness and vindictiveness. And so, what he has done—if anybody is leading this movement, it’s Mr. Trump. He has done more to put it on track and to move it forward than any other individual in history.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, President Trump has managed to do something that hasn’t happened in quite a while, like Roger Goodell, the head of the NFL, being united with players? Talk about the response of the predominantly almost all-white coaches, the staff and the players. Describe what we saw yesterday, from game to game, whether the players stayed back in the locker room for the anthem or went down on knee or locked arms, like Tom Brady, not usually seen in solidarity in this way, who talked about President Trump as being disrespectful.

HARRY EDWARDS: Well, Mr. Trump, first of all, threw the owners under the bus. The owners, who had been supporting him, all of a sudden had to choose between him—and the “alt-right” and that cheap applause that he got in Alabama—and their own players. And they knew, from the moment that he made those statements, if they didn’t stand up on the right side of these issues and join their players, they’ve signed their last free agent, they probably would have a great deal of difficulty signing their draft choices, and they would have tremendous problems in their locker room because of the perception of what the owner stood for who took Mr. Trump’s advice.

Again, this demonstrates Mr. Trump’s utter ignorance of the dynamics of athletics in this country, particularly at the elite levels, what holds teams together, what motivates them and what they consider to be important and critical in terms of their own involvement in this great American sports institution. So, again, like in almost every other area that he has entered, he shows an abysmal ignorance of what is important, what’s going on, and he doesn’t hesitate to throw even his closest associates and supporters under the bus.

And I will say something else: We haven’t heard the last of him in the sports arena. And so, we had better prepare ourselves to respond objectively, collectively, in unity, because, going forward, he’s going to continue this vindictive tirade that he’s been on.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the former NFL head coach, like head of the New York Jets, Rex Ryan, well-known Trump supporter. Speaking Sunday on ESPN, Ryan blasted Trump for his criticism of NFL players, saying he’s appalled by Trump’s comments.

REX RYAN: Like I’m [bleep] off. I’ll be honest with you, you know, because I supported Donald Trump. You know, I sat back, and when he asked me to introduce him at a rally, you know, in Buffalo, I did that. But I’m reading these comments, and it’s appalling to me. And I’m sure it’s appalling to almost any citizen in our country. It should be. I mean, you know, calling our players SOBs and all that kind of stuff? That’s not the—that’s not the men that I know. The men that I know in the locker room, I’m proud of. I’m proud to be associated with those people. And it’s just so—you know, I apologize for being [bleep] off, but guess what. That’s it. Because, right away, I’m associated with what Donald Trump stands for and all that, because, you know, I introduced him. I never signed up for that. I never wanted that.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, you’ve been covering sports and protest for a long time. Describe everything that we saw yesterday. I mean, we’re not only talking about the NFL—NBA, cheerleaders, the actual anthem singers themselves, WNBA, as well, women’s basketball.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah. And first and foremost, Amy, I just want to say what an honor it is to do this show with Dr. Harry Edwards. It’s impossible—he said it’s impossible to think about this moment happening without Donald Trump. I think it’s impossible to see this moment happening without the work of Dr. Harry Edwards over the last five decades.

I will say this. Donald Trump thought he knew what he was doing in Huntsville, Alabama. He has a tremendous ability to speak to the worst instincts of his audience. And I’m sure, in his lizard brain, he looked at that audience of senior—white senior citizens’ council in Alabama and said to himself, “You know what? I think that going after young black men will be a big win.” And that’s what he does. He goes after people of color. He goes after women. He goes after people that his base will celebrate their destruction.

And yet, what he did not understand, maybe because he never played the game of football, he did not understand that in football locker rooms they have what Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett calls a brotherhood. And “brotherhood” could be seen as another word for solidarity. And it’s kind of like a Spartacus thing, like “an injury to one is an injury to all” kind of thing.

And so, you think about what Donald Trump said at that rally and what NFL players and owners heard. You’ve got to take in the whole thing of what he said. First and foremost, he called the players SOBs, and he used the B-word. And that’s going after players’ mothers, and you just do not do that. Second, he went after their livelihoods, saying that they should be fired. Third of all, he went after their freedoms, their right to dissent.

And it also has to be said that Donald Trump, because he doesn’t know the game, did not understand that the players who have been dissenting—and I’m talking about people like Malcolm Jenkins, Michael Bennett—they’re not just individuals, they’re not just people who are sitting during the anthem, they are people who are considered leaders in locker rooms, the most respected people in the National Football League. So he’s going after people who a lot of these coaches love. They love having these guys in their locker room, because they’re some of the most thoughtful people that they have.

And so, what Donald Trump spurred is remarkable. And I’d be remiss, Amy, if I did not read for your audience, just so people know how deep the politics of what we saw Sunday was, the statement made by the Seattle Seahawks in their refusal to come out for the national anthem. It’s brief, and it’s worth reading. This is what they said. They said, “We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country. Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms. We remain committed in continuing to work towards equality and justice for all.” We have reached a point where protesting the anthem is an act that actually demands more unity than whatever it is that Donald Trump is saying from his bully pulpit.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Michael Bennett himself, a Seattle Seahawk, NFL star, appeared on Democracy Now! a few months ago, and I asked him about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest against racial oppression and police brutality by taking the knee during the pregame national anthem.

MICHAEL BENNETT: When he took that knee, it just—it just made me realize that, you know, when he did that and the way that he touched—made people speak around the world about this, it was like, “Wow! Athletes really do have this platform that a lot of people just want to hear.” And when he made that decision to do that, I think it changed a lot of lives. I think it brought out some ugliness in people, but it also brought out some beauty in some people. And I think, for us, for me personally, it just challenged me to be—to even, you know, join him and try to make it—try to make everything in his message more—make it where people understand and they want to be a part of it, where young kids are speaking about it, too.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett speaking to us in February. Now, Dave Zirin, I wanted to ask you about the history of the playing of the national anthem. It wasn’t always like this, was it? Weren’t the teams usually in their locker rooms? Did this have to do with payment that the Pentagon made to the NFL to start recruiting more people, because young people watch football?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, Amy, playing the national anthem and having the teams line up before games, it has a long and hallowed history that goes back to the days of Jersey Shore and Justin Bieber. I mean, we’re talking 2009. I mean, Fast & Furious 4 came out in 2009. That’s how long players have lined up for the anthem. And, yes, it comes out of a partnership between the Department of Defense and the National Football League. Everything you see at games, for years, until it was uncovered by Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona, everything you saw for years, like—

AMY GOODMAN: And John McCain, right?

DAVE ZIRIN: And John McCain, yes. And showing it in like—showing like the salute to the troop moment and all of these spectacles, they really were about recruitment for the armed forces, and they pay tens of millions of dollars to the National Football League to do these kinds of events, which speaks to, I think, this partnership that exists and how patriotism exists in these events. This is not some long tradition. I mean, this is something that’s a very short tradition and one that was absolutely geared with post-9/11 war-on-terror concern about the recruitment levels for the armed forces and seeing the NFL as a way to shore up those numbers, and paying billionaires money to make this a reality. And, yes, this was only—this was something also that was hidden. It was discovered by the investigation of those Arizona senators. And I think that sort of gives the game away as far as what all this is about. I mean, Trump speaks about it as if it is this kind of long, hallowed tradition of players standing at attention for the anthem, when it’s actually something very recent and very, I think, just monetary, in terms of the NFL’s perspective.


AMY GOODMAN: Was that Harry Edwards?

HARRY EDWARDS: But, you know, the—uh-huh.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

HARRY EDWARDS: But, you know, it’s not about the anthem.


HARRY EDWARDS: This is the part that we don’t want to get hung up on. What Colin did was not an attack on the anthem. It was not an attack on the military. It was not even an attack on police. It was an attack on injustice. And he was no more against the anthem than he was against the soldiers who are in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And so, we don’t want to get too tied up on the anthem and its place in sports and so forth. We want to look at the issues. Anything else is a red herring. That is what Colin was about. It’s not even about Colin getting a quarterback job again. That’s like saying that we should—that Montgomery—the Montgomery bus boycott movement should have been about Rosa Parks getting her seat back. It has to be about things much broader than that. And so, we want to understand the history and dynamics of the politics of the national anthem and how they’re being played by people such as Trump, but we don’t want to lose sight about what this struggle is about. It’s about injustice in American society.

DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Harry Edwards, you are certainly speaking from personal experience. You’re an adviser to Colin Kaepernick. And for people who haven’t been following the whole controversy around him, after he first took the knee as a 49ers star, now not being able to get a job—I mean, I’m talking to you from New York, where a thousand people came out protesting outside of NFL headquarters. Talk about Colin’s response right now to what we’re seeing, the mass protests across the country.

HARRY EDWARDS: Colin Kaepernick is getting ready to play football. I think that that has been his commitment. All of this discussion about whether he wants to play—”Geez, is he willing to offer an apology?” An apology for what? He plays football. He is an activist in the struggle for human rights and justice in American society. Those two things are not contradictory. And so, this notion that perhaps he doesn’t want to play anymore, perhaps he wants to be a civil rights leader instead, I mean, those two things are not contradictory.

So, a lot of that is simply rationalization for a reactionary culture, where owners, for whatever reason, are reluctant to give Colin Kaepernick the opportunity to play. The very idea that there are 96 quarterbacks in this league, including 32 clipboard holders, who are so much better than Colin Kaepernick, who took his team to three conference championships and a Super Bowl, that they are so much better than Colin Kaepernick, that he does not even deserve a chance for a tryout, is ludicrous. This is something that the league, along with siding with their players, within the very near future, is going to have to correct. Colin Kaepernick belongs at least on the field holding a clipboard. You can’t make any other argument, especially given some of the performances that have shown up in the first three weeks by quarterbacks in this league. So, that’s a challenge that the league is still confronted with. But what Colin Kaepernick is doing is preparing to play football, because that’s one of the things that he does.

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