Friday 21 September 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Sport takes a knee to make a stand

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before their game against the Houston Texans last weekend. Photo: Michael Dwyer Photo: AP
Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before their game against the Houston Texans last weekend. Photo: Michael Dwyer Photo: AP

Eamonn Sweeney

People are very unfair to Donald Trump. He's constantly criticised for being a divisive figure, yet this day last week he managed to unite the National Football League against him. Black and white, players and owners, joined together in protest against the President's description of players who protest during the US national anthem as "sons of bitches" and his call for them to be fired.

Colin Kaepernick, whose decision last season to take a knee during the anthem in protest against the killings of black men by the police started the whole controversy, must have been delighted. Instead of, as had been the case, a handful of players following his lead, you had whole teams protesting. The Pittsburgh Steelers, with one exception, stayed in their dressing room while in the Republican heartland of Nashville both teams, the Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks, did the same and country singer Meghan Linsey dropped to one knee while singing the anthem.

In London, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shad Khan, who contributed financially to Trump's presidential campaign, linked arms with his players on the sideline during the anthem as a gesture of support. And on Monday night in Dallas, Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, probably the league's best known owner and something of a hero in conservative circles, knelt alongside his team before the anthem.

The extent of the protests made this a remarkably impressive spectacle, like the Tommie Smith-John Carlos salutes in Mexico magnified many times over. Given how intemperate Trump's rhetoric had been and his apparent determination to seek confrontation on this issue when it really didn't have very much to do with him, it was hard to deny that the players had a point. So those who sought to undermine them resorted instead to a very old chestnut, namely that sport and politics shouldn't be mixed.

People who come up with this line often deliver it as though it has some sort of official status, like there's a rulebook somewhere setting down the necessity for these two spheres of activity to remain separate. In reality, to quote the immortal words of the political philosopher Jeffrey Lebowski, "Yeah, well, that's just like, your opinion man."

This idea of sport and politics as the immiscible grape and grain of everyday life was once used in this country to defend Irish rugby contacts with South Africa, most notably in 1981 when we became the last nation to officially tour that country before the end of apartheid. Plenty of controversy surrounded that one and several well-known players refused to travel for reasons of conscience. Those who did travel sought shelter under the 'we only want to play the game, it's got nothing to do with politics' umbrella.

Yet tours such as that had everything to do with politics. In a 1977 survey, white South Africans ranked the loss of international sports competition as one of the worst consequences of apartheid. And in 1990 Joe Ebrahim, president of the anti-apartheid South African Council on Sport described the sporting boycott as "one of the most effective non-violent measures of pressure on the government". By touring South Africa the Irish rugby team were effectively supporting apartheid. It remains a sore point, write about the issue and you can be sure a few 'those blacks were no angels' comments will pop up in comments sections and forums. What the whole shameful episode showed most clearly is the impossibility of divorcing sport from politics.

By broaching the anthem issue in such a fashion, Trump made a political response inevitable. Had the players not reacted at all, that too would have been a political gesture, one tacitly acknowledging the President's right to demonise any players engaging in protest. They could hardly do that. Trump has since accused the team owners of being "afraid of their players," and he may be correct. It is, after all, very difficult to have a football team without players. Yet I think the natural distaste of very rich men for being told how to run their own business by an outsider also played a part in the owners' response.

There's been a lot of talk about fans turning away from their teams because they're turned off by the protests. But there could surely be no better example of cutting off your nose to spite your face than to stop supporting your home team as a gesture of solidarity with a loudmouth braggart. After all, Trump didn't restrict his pot-shots at the NFL to the anthem issue, but also complained that efforts to make American football safer are "ruining the game". This seems in particularly bad taste given that last week a post-mortem on former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, who died by suicide in prison after being convicted of murder, showed that he, like so many other former players, had developed the degenerative brain disease CTE. Doctors said the level of degeneration in Hernandez's brain was akin to that displayed by deceased players in their 60s.

During the campaign Trump mocked "these new, and much softer NFL rules. Concussion. Oh, oh. Got a little ding on the head. No, no, you can't play for the season."

The horrendous blow shipped by the Green Bay Packers Davante Adams against the Chicago Bears on Thursday night cast doubt over whether the new rules are doing much to clean up the game. Watching Adams being stretchered off, and thinking of the huge incidence of CTE among former players, you wondered if being an NFL star is quite the 'privilege' Trump believes it to be.

It's not just America's most popular sport which attracts the President's ire. He also withdrew NBA champions Golden State Warriors' invitation to the White House when their star player Steph Curry expressed doubts about whether he'd go. On Tuesday Curry, who holds a lucrative sponsorship contract with Under Armour, was asked if he agreed with Kevin Plank, the company's CEO, who described Trump as "a real asset to the country". "I agree with that description," said the player, "if you remove the 'et' from asset."

With the normally measured LeBron James describing Trump as a "bum" and adding, "Going to the White House was a great honour before you showed up", it's clear that many leading figures in American sport have lost patience with the President.

They're not all African-American either, Warriors coach Steve Kerr lamented: "His comments about the NFL players were as bad as anything he's said to this point. It was awful. You're talking about young men who are peacefully protesting police brutality and racism. Racial inequality. Peacefully protesting, the hallmark of our country. Come on." There will surely be even more fireworks when the NBA season begins on October 17.

In the circumstances it's hard to have much sympathy with fans declaring they won't follow their team anymore because players are bringing politics into sport. The video of another flag protester, Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, face down on the ground, in obvious terror as a wound-up policeman held a gun to his head in Las Vegas on the night of the McGregor-Mayweather bout after an incident which the player had nothing to do with, shows just what is driving the current controversy.

By following in the footsteps of Smith, Carlos and Muhammad Ali, whose refusal to go to Vietnam was once widely regarded as unforgivably unpatriotic, a new generation of sportsmen are eschewing the approach of the likes of Michael Jordan, who once justified a refusal to join a political campaign by noting that "republicans buy sneakers too". Tiger Woods also typified this more emollient approach.

Criticism of Jordan and Woods on the grounds that they, as black men, were somehow obliged to be more radical is unfair. African-Americans are perhaps the most politically aware of all sportspeople. There has, by comparison, been not a word of protest from any soccer player about the system of virtual slave labour used to build the World Cup stadiums in Qatar and the deaths which have resulted from it. And when that World Cup rolls around we shall be enjoined by our TV stations to forget the controversy and just enjoy the football. Like we were children. Because there are people who still think that sport is where we go to indulge the childish side of our nature, a place where we can stick our fingers in our ears and go, "na na na, I can't hear you', to the news from the rest of the world.

But if that's all sport is, why should grown-ups bother with it? Sport and politics have to mix because as citizens it's our duty to speak out when we see something wrong and to back up people who try to change those things. The fact that your job involves kicking or throwing a ball doesn't exempt you from that. That's why this day last week was a great one for sport not just in America but everywhere.

Maybe some day it'll be an Irish player taking the knee. To protest in favour of repealing the eighth amendment or against the barbaric system of direct provision or to raise awareness of the parlous situation of the Travelling community in the country or of our homeless problem. I wonder how we'd react if that happened. Maybe we'd still say sport and politics shouldn't mix.

I hope not.

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