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What The NFL Could Learn From MLK And The Civil Rights Protests


At this point, it seems there is one obvious rule for opponents of President Trump: Don’t take the bait. Somehow the president is able to create (or insert himself in) controversies the media stokes that outrage the Left.

This has two important practical effects. One, it forces ordinary citizens to choose sides against the left-leaning cultural and political establishments that are Trump’s bête noire. Two, it changes the discussion so we’re not talking about Trump’s substantive failures. (How’s health-care reform coming? North Korea?)

Sure enough, after Trump remarks this weekend about how players who won’t stand for the national anthem should be fired, all anyone wants to talk about is the National Football League. Naturally, a large number of NFL players reacted negatively and made a big show of protesting the national anthem Sunday. NFL ratings, which were already sliding over previous years, fared even worse this weekend as a result.

Even better, Trump’s favorite punching bag—the media—once again showed how they don’t understand that, for better and for worse, using the national anthem as a focal point for political protest is not an issue that goes over well with much of America.

Further, the media didn’t exactly go on offense when the last president embraced the same divisive tactics in calling out his political enemies. Sure, Obama wasn’t so crass as to call them a “son of a b—ch” on national TV, but maybe passing legislation forcing nuns to pay for birth control or claiming there was not a “smidgen of corruption” when the Internal Revenue Service actively admitted to targeting conservative groups was substantively worse.

Nonetheless, there are some important lessons here, about the value of political protest and how it should be conducted, being lost in the culture war. These could not only make what NFL players are doing (and related protests against racial injustice) more effective, but help the country come together. They would also hamstring Trump’s ability to distract from more substantive problems. All it requires is learning the lessons from the last era of successful protest.

Before the counterculture of the late 1960s turned American political protests into a contradictory spectacle of unchecked individualism and radical leftism, the civil rights protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. were a case study in disciplined political campaigning. While systemic racism obviously remains a serious problem, the protests of the ’50s and early to mid-’60s were wildly successful in achieving tangible progress. I regret to say that what’s going on in the NFL is destined to agitate rather than accomplish, because no one seems to have learned the lessons of civil rights protests.

1. Have a Clear Message and Goal

The civil rights movement worked hard on messaging. In 1963, they brought in broad coalitions and had negotiations for what goals they wanted to push for. By the time the March on Washington occurred that year, anyone following the event could clearly discern two messages that were intentionally chosen: Better jobs for African-Americans, and laws codifying civil rights protections. The landmark Civil Rights Act was passed into law less than a year later.

Can someone tell me what NFL players are trying to achieve here? Some sort of generalized awareness of ongoing racism? What are ordinary Americans supposed to do in response to this display? Are they offering a goal we can all agree on or debate the merits of? No one has any idea. So this protest, in the absence of a clearly defined point, looks like millionaire athletes throwing a tantrum, no matter how incredibly important the issue animating them is.

2. Embrace Patriotism, American Ideals, and Inclusivity

From the beginning of King’s “I have a dream” speech, we see it is a call to live up to American ideals. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” MLK said. “This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Rhetorically, King was appealing to patriotism. He is clearly saying if you believe in the principles laid out in the Declaration and the Constitution, you can’t tolerate racial injustice—a message as true today as it was then. One of the lessons of the civil rights movement is that appealing to patriotism and American values is an effective route to moving public opinion.

Further, while it was obvious that the focal point was justice for black Americans, the message was that addressing racism was an issue of coming together: “When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

Now, taking a knee can be seen as a respectful gesture, nor is it necessarily announcing you reject American values. But it’s also doing literally the opposite of what you are supposed to do during the national anthem—stand. People unavoidably see it as disrespectful. Drawing attention to yourself and your cause at the one time we come together to collectively express our patriotism and shared American values is going to be unavoidably be seen as unpatriotic. That actively repels people instead of appealing to commonly held political values.

3. Optics and Unity Matter

Even though there were 150,000 people at the March on Washington, it was an incredibly staged event. You couldn’t just show up. People were told where to stand. They were dressed in their Sunday best. Any signs were pre-made or had pre-approved messages.

An interview with Lucy Barber, author of “Marching on Washington,” in The Believer described the effect of the March on Washington this way:

The imagery of that march was also carefully planned. It showed demonstrators how to use the press. It’s mostly forgotten, Barber says, that Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech on a weekday. Pointedly, a work day. Though the speech had the tone of a sermon, specifically of Moses, it did not come on a Sunday. It interrupted business. Prior protests had often been parades, with spectators. But in the face of the march, government employees were sent home. The resulting symbolism everyone now knows from high school textbooks. It surpasses what even the wiliest Carvilles and Roves might conjure today: a Southern Baptist preacher giving a sermon to a crowd in a white marble city, with Abraham Lincoln behind him and the capitol in front of him.

Contrast that with what happened this weekend in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers tried to enforce total unity by keeping the entire team off the sidelines. That’s a lot to ask, given the charged nature of this protest. Instead, Alejandro Villanueva stepped out as the lone Steelers player to place his hand over his heart and say the national anthem, resulting in easily the most iconic image of the weekend. It turns out Villanueva is a West Point grad and an Army Ranger captain who did three tours in Afghanistan and won a bronze star.

By the way, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has since criticized Villanueva for not refusing sing the national anthem. Good luck criticizing an American hero for singing the national Anthem, Mike.

4. Have an Unimpeachable Movement Leader

Scolds and racists often point to MLK Jr.’s personal failings, but there’s a reason we have a national holiday in the man’s honor. He was motivated by honoring his Christian convictions and driven by a belief in a better America. He dedicated his entire life to the cause of civil rights. And he advocated nonviolence even as Southern police were turning dogs and firehoses on him and fellow civil rights advocates.

That the NFL protests were started by Kaepernick means having to defend Kaepernick’s vision of America, which so far amounts to taking a second look at communism and denigrating cops.

Somehow all of these NFL protests got started by a mediocre quarterback who wasn’t terribly articulate about what role something as comparatively frivolous as professional football had in rectifying racial injustice, all bound up in an inextricable discussion of whether this social justice posturing was helping or hurting Colin Kaepernick’s career.

Then Kaepernick showed up at a press conference to discuss all this wearing a T-shirt depicting the famous photo of Malcom X meeting Fidel Castro. (Cuba, by the way, is all but officially racist and is in no position to be lecturing America on race relations.) Kaepernick got grilled by a reporter from the Miami Herald over the shirt last fall. It didn’t go well. This wasn’t long after Kaepernick was seen at practice wearing socks depicting cops as pigs.

Now I think most Americans are willing to entertain the idea that bad cops are a source of racial injustice, but it’s also true that bad cops are putting their life on the line to protect us every day. Also, recall that the NFL refused to allow the Cowboys to honor the five cops who were slain at a Black Lives Matter protest last year.

Inevitably, the fact the NFL protests were started by Kaepernick means having to defend Kaepernick’s vision of America, which so far, amounts to taking a second look at communism and denigrating cops. No wonder Villanueva was quick to distance himself from Kaepernick when asked about him last year:

I agree that America is not perfect. I agree that there are a lot of issues with minorities in this country. And I agree that we should do something about it. But I don’t know if the most effective way is to sit down when the National Anthem of a country that has provided you freedom and is providing you $60 million a year is the best way to do it, when there are black minorities that are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan that are protecting our freedom for less than $20,000 a year. So, it’s his decision. Obviously he has brought up the issue in a great way, but I think if he encourages other players or other people in the stands to sit down, it’s going to send the wrong message. And I think he has to be a little more careful and look at the big picture of the things that he is doing, because as a service member, I have to understand it. …

“I will stand very proudly, and I will sing every single line in the National Anthem every single time I hear it,” said Villanueva. “I will stop whatever I am doing, because I recognize that I have to be very thankful to be in this country… I tell my teammates all the time, especially when they talk about contracts, I am one of the cheapest left tackles in the NFL. I always tell everybody, just by being an American, I’ve won three lotteries.”

Now take a guess which football player has the number-one selling jersey in America after last weekend? Hint: It’s not Colin Kaepernick.

5. Partisanship Is a Trap to Avoid

In the early 1960s, it would have been really easy to take a look at what Southern Democrats were doing to enforce racist policies and decide to declare war on the Democratic Party writ large for not repudiating the part of their coalition enabling racism. But since civil rights advocates viewed political progress as an important goal, they didn’t do that. “The big sticking point for that march was jobs. What is a good job? The other was: Are the Democrats our friend?,” notes Barber.

For this or any other real progress to happen, you’d need an organized civil rights movement with clear goals that respects American values.

Instead, a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, would sign the Civil Rights Act into law and later pass his Great Society legislation ostensibly to address racial injustice. Within a decade, the Democratic Party would start to realign and renounce racism.

Now there’s no question that much of the NFL protests Sunday were specifically in response to Donald Trump. Whatever you think of Trump’s racial rhetoric, both in tone and substance, there’s a good argument to be made that it has been unnecessarily divisive.

But I don’t believe MLK and the canny civil rights leaders of yore would have thought Trump a lost cause politically, even if they found him personally offensive. Trump has shown he’s willing to deal with people at opposite ends of the political spectrum, especially when it gets him good press. If Trump could burnish his legacy and reputation with new measures on civil rights—and there’s actual room for bipartisan consensus here on issues such as education reform, economic initiatives for black communities, and federal oversight of police shootings—aren’t the odds pretty good he’d jump at the chance?

But for this or any other real progress to happen, you’d need an organized civil rights movement with clear goals that respects American values. Instead, what we have is NFL players on the literal and metaphorical sidelines. In the face of such ineffective opposition, it sure looks like President Trump won a clear cultural and political victory attacking the NFL this weekend.