- Dave Zirinsports editor for The Nation magazine and host of Edge of Sports. His new piece is titled “The Real Reason NFL Owners Want to Punish Players for Protesting During the Anthem.”
The National Football League has announced it will fine teams if players refuse to stand for the national anthem before games. But under the new rules adopted by the league’s 32 owners, players will be allowed to stay in the locker room during the anthem. Over the past two seasons, dozens of players have knelt during the anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed black men. The on-field protests began in August 2016 when quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem to protest racism and police brutality. President Trump has praised the NFL’s new rule, saying the league is “doing the right thing.” Just hours after the NFL announcement, the sports world was jolted by the release of a video showing police officers in Milwaukee tasering NBA player Sterling Brown, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. Brown, who is African-American, was approached by police after he parked his car across two handicap spaces in front of a Walgreens. The body cam footage confirms Brown was not “combative,” as police initially claimed, in a dispute over the parking violation. In a statement, Brown said, “Situations like mine and worse happen every day in the black community. Being a voice and a face for people who won’t be heard and don’t have the same platform as I have is a responsibility I take seriously.” In Washington, D.C., we speak with Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine and host of “Edge of Sports.” His new piece is titled “The Real Reason NFL Owners Want to Punish Players for Protesting During the Anthem.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The National Football League has announced it will fine teams if players refuse to stand for the national anthem before games. But under the new rules adopted by the league’s 32 owners, players will be allowed to stay in the locker room during the anthem. Over the past two seasons, dozens of players have knelt during the anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed black men.
The on-field protests began in August 2016 when quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem to protest racism and police brutality. At the time, Kaepernick said, quote, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The protests would eventually cost Kaepernick his job—he has essentially been blacklisted from the league—but the protests spread throughout the NFL. The protests also attracted the attention of President Trump, who repeatedly attacked the protesting players.
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?
AMY GOODMAN: President Trump has praised the NFL’s new rule, saying the league is, quote, “doing the right thing.”
Meanwhile, filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted, “Oh NFL! I love you! What better time to curtail free speech than during the National Anthem! USA! USA!! USA!!! Back in the USSA!!”
Just hours after the NFL announcement, the sports world was jolted by the release of a video showing police officers in Milwaukee tasering NBA player Sterling Brown, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. Brown, who’s African-American, was approached by police after he parked his car across two handicap spaces in front of a Walgreens. The body cam footage confirms Brown was not “combative,” as the police initially claimed, in a dispute over the parking violation. The video included the moment when officers tased him.
POLICE OFFICER: Taser! Taser! Taser!
STERLING BROWN: [moaning]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sterling Brown was cited for a parking violation but not charged following his arrest. In a statement, Sterling Brown said, quote, “Situations like mine and worse happen every day in the black community. Being a voice and a face for people who won’t be heard and don’t have the same platform as I have is a responsibility I take seriously. I am speaking for Dontre Hamilton of Milwaukee, Laquan McDonald of Chicago, Stephon Clark of Sacramento, Eric Garner of New York, and the list goes on. These people aren’t able to speak anymore because of unjust actions by those who are supposed to 'serve and protect' the people.”
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about these stories, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine, also host of Edge of Sports. His new piece is titled “The Real Reason NFL Owners Want to Punish Players for Protesting During the Anthem.”
OK, what’s that real reason, Dave?
DAVE ZIRIN: The real reason, Amy, is about controlling labor and controlling the NFL workforce. I think that what Colin Kaepernick started in the NFL represented the greatest threat to institutional power in the National Football League. And that institutional power is ownership power, that we’ve seen since the dawn of free agency 25 years ago.
They were saying to NFL owners that “We will not behave the way you want us to behave. We are going to show fans what we have going on between our ears, not just between our pads. And we are going to stand up for what we believe is right—namely, a movement against police violence and a movement against racial inequity.” And that’s something that I think scared the pants off NFL owners, who—there are no black NFL owners. And all, except one, are white billionaires. And this was a moment where NFL players were saying, “Wait a minute. You can’t just treat us like pieces of equipment. You can’t just treat us as future concussion victims. We’re going to stand up and say what we believe. And we are going to use our platform to do so.”
And this is the reaction. This is the backlash. These are the conservative NFL owners saying, “We are going to quash your free speech, your constitutional rights, your voice,” in the name of quelling a labor upsurge in the National Football League.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask about President Trump’s role in this controversy. This is President Trump speaking to Fox & Friends this morning.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think that’s good. I don’t think people should be staying in locker rooms, but, still, I think it’s good. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. And the NFL owners did the right thing, if that’s what they’ve done.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s President Trump speaking this morning, saying that if you don’t stand for the national anthem, you shouldn’t be in the country. Dave Zirin, your response?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Love it or leave it, Dave.
DAVE ZIRIN: Love it or leave it. My response is that compulsory patriotism isn’t patriotism at all. It’s dictatorship. And this is what Donald Trump is standing for. It’s absolutely disgusting. And it speaks far more to his character than the character of people in the National Football League who are using that space in the anthem to speak about the gap between the promises of the national anthem, the promises of this country, and the lived experiences of black Americans in this country. That’s a discussion Donald Trump does not want to have. And that’s what this is really all about.
When has this president said one word about police brutality or about racism? If anything, he fans the flames of that kind of oppression. He does not stand against them or even want to have a dialogue about them. And that’s exactly what he’s trying to quelch. This has nothing to do with patriotism and has everything to do with the brutish racism that we’ve seen from Donald Trump, going back 30, 40 years, in his personal life and his professional life.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to an article published Monday by Bleacher Report on details revealed as part of a grievance Colin Kaepernick’s filed against the NFL, claiming owners colluded with each other to keep him out of the league for good: quote, “According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, internal team documents show 'teams viewed Kaepernick as being good enough not simply to be employed by an NFL team, but to be a starting quarterback for an NFL team.'” Dave?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, absolutely. The collusion case that Colin Kaepernick is building, I think, continues to gain strength. And this is one of the things that just absolutely punctures a hole in the other half of what the NFL owners are trying to do, because with this anthem issue, they are trying to operate with a very big stick, but also a little bit of sugar at the same time—the tiniest possible carrot and a huge stick. And the tiniest possible carrot is them giving $89 million—basically the cost of one field goal kicker per team—to say that they are supporting social justice causes among a group of NFL players.
But there other NFL players who are saying, “Wait a minute. This has no validity whatsoever that you support us, as long as Colin Kaepernick and as long as his former teammate Eric Reid are colluded against and kept out of the league precisely because they protested during the anthem and helped lead this movement.” Colin Kaepernick has been very strong, from day one, saying that he’s not going to stand up for a flag that oppresses black people in this country. He has every right to do that. And yet Donald Trump doesn’t think so, and the NFL doesn’t think so. And this only proves, yet again, that the NFL, I mean, it doesn’t just stand for “Not For Long”—that’s the old joke because of the injury rate in the league—but it also stands for the “No Freedom League.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dave Zirin, what about the players’ union, the NFL Players Association?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: How have they responded to this?
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, this is why I think what the NFL did yesterday was basically put out a fire with kerosene, because the NFL Players Association is absolutely incensed because they were not brought to the negotiating table to speak about this issue. So they put out a blistering statement about what the NFL and the owners are trying to do with this issue. And it’s really rare you get something that incendiary from the NFL Players Association. They are absolutely furious. Now, NFL owners will say that they have the right to change the anthem policy unilaterally. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s also written into the collective bargaining agreement that players have the right to use that space as they would like.
In addition to the NFL Players Association, several journalists, myself included, have heard from players who have said that they did not think of protesting during the anthem, or they were largely done with doing that, until the NFL came out with what they said. And now there’s talk about huge groups of players staying in the locker room during the anthem as a form of protest. And this would not be a form of protest that would be against police brutality or racial inequity per se. This would be a form of protest that would be a labor protest, to tell NFL owners, “You cannot control us unilaterally without having us at the bargaining table.”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dave, it wasn’t hours after—
DAVE ZIRIN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —the NFL announcement that the Milwaukee Police Department apologized to basketball player, NBA player, Sterling Brown, after newly released police body cam video showed Brown’s violent arrest. It was last January 26, video released yesterday. Brown is African-American, 22-year-old rookie player on the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, body cam footage confirming Brown was not “combative,” as police initially said, before a group of officers tackled him to the ground and electrocuted him with a Taser, Brown then arrested, but charges were later dropped. Talk about this.
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I think one of the things that we need to talk about is Sterling Brown’s statement after the release of the video. One of the things that Sterling Brown, who’s only 22 years old, realizes is that precisely because he’s an athlete, people will notice what happened to him. And this is something that happens in the black community every day, every week. And he is saying, “It shouldn’t have to be just because I’m an athlete that we notice, but since I do have this platform, let’s talk about Eric Garner, let’s talk about Stephon Clark, let’s talk about Laquan McDonald.”
But I also have to say—and this is in such stark contrast to the National Football League—his team, the Milwaukee Bucks, issued their own statement, which is really, I thought, remarkable. I’ve never seen a major pro sports team say something like this. I’m just going to read the first sentence. They said, “The abuse and intimidation that Sterling experienced at the hands of Milwaukee police was shameful and inexcusable.” And then they go on to absolutely excoriate the Milwaukee police and speak about racism in their community. I’ve never seen a team do that before from the top levels. And it only speaks to the gap between how the NBA has managed this growing Black Lives Matter movement, and the way it’s intersected with their players, and the National Football League, which has chosen to clamp down and try to crush any kind of free voice among players to speak to these issues.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, while the president has framed this as protesting the flag, many have talked about it as standing up for the flag and what it represents.
DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, the original kneeling gesture, it actually started because Colin Kaepernick was first sitting during the anthem, and then he had a conversation with a former NFL player and marine named Nate Boyer. And Nate said to Colin Kaepernick, “You know, if you kneel during the anthem, it will look respectful. It will show that you’re protesting, but also look respectful.” And I think that that—what we see is that anybody who protests, it’s going to be twisted in a way that you don’t want it to be protest, as a way to serve an ideological agenda that’s coming from the hard right wing.
And I think, similarly, this NFL season, instead of weekly countings, like they were doing on ESPN, of which players were kneeling or raising their fists during the anthem—they would keep a running tally week to week—now it’ll be a running tally of who remains in the locker room. And so, the NFL didn’t even solve their problem with this incoherent policy. What they’ve done instead is actually spur more anger.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Dave, you’re the author of the book about—with Michael Bennett, you’re co-author—
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —of his book, the book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. What’s happened with the football star?
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, Michael Bennett is currently facing absolutely absurd, trumped-up charges in Houston, that could get him as much as 10 years behind bars, because they say that 15 months ago he bumped into a security guard, who was in a wheelchair, while rushing onto the field to congratulate his brother after the Super Bowl.
Now, the formal investigation against Michael did not even begin until nine months later in Houston, after Michael Bennett spoke about bringing charges against Las Vegas police because of a very similar incident to what happened to Sterling Brown. He wasn’t detained—I mean, he wasn’t tased, but Michael Bennett was detained. He was put on his stomach, and a weapon was put to the back of his head, while he was handcuffed, in Las Vegas. And it was only after Michael Bennett was public about that, that Houston police attempted to try to investigate what had occurred at the Super Bowl, at that point nine months before, and now 15 months beforehand.
These are ridiculous charges. I expect them to be treated as ridiculous as they are in the court system of Houston. And I can guarantee you that Michael Bennett will not be slowed down by this one bit. He’s an outspoken athlete. There’s a long tradition in this country of trying to silence outspoken black athletes. But Michael Bennett will not be silenced.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dave Zirin, we want to thank you for being with us, sports editor for The Nation magazine, host of Edge of Sports. We’re going to link to your new piece, “The Real Reason NFL Owners Want to Punish Players for Protesting [During] the Anthem,” and co-author, with NFL star Michael Bennett, of his book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.
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