Tuesday 24 October 2017

When sport is more than just a game

Joe O'Shea examines the fallout of Trump's latest outburst which prompted mass protests by NFL players during the American national anthem

United state: Players from the Cleveland Browns kneel and link arms during the national anthem ahead of their game at the weekend. Photo: Thomas J/USA Today Sports
United state: Players from the Cleveland Browns kneel and link arms during the national anthem ahead of their game at the weekend. Photo: Thomas J/USA Today Sports

Joe O'Shea

As North Korea threatens nuclear war and the US territory of Puerto Rico reels from Hurricane Maria, President Donald Trump and the country he leads has been focused on one issue over the past 48 hours - football.

Trump, via inflammatory remarks at a rally in Alabama last Friday, quickly followed by one of his trademark 'tweet storms', has dramatically reignited a slow-burning protest by some of America's most famous professional athletes.

The golf nut in the White House has chosen to mix sports and politics - and the result is a highly combustible cocktail his critics warn can only further polarise an already deeply divided nation.

Even some of Trump's staunchest supporters have expressed dismay and shock at the president's decision to single out some of America's best loved sports stars and teams for some trademark Trumpian name-calling.

The president began his latest tirade by attacking high profile pro athletes - led by NFL star Colin Kaepernick - who have chosen to 'take a knee' (or kneel down) during the playing of the US national anthem at the start of big games.

Kaepernick and those who have followed him since he started his protest last summer have knelt, sat or bowed their heads during the playing of the anthem, saying they want to highlight or "start a conversation" about police brutality against the black community and racism in America in general.

Divisive: Trump at the Alabama rally. Photo: AP
Divisive: Trump at the Alabama rally. Photo: AP

Kaepernick was subsequently released by his team, the San Francisco 49ers, and has not been employed by any other franchise in the NFL, a situation which has led his supporters to claim he has been black-listed for taking his stand.

But his symbolic protest has been taken up by other players and teams across various sports. And it has enraged many conservatives in the US who see their peaceful protest as disrespecting the Stars and Stripes and dishonouring those who have died for their nation.

Last Friday, at a rally in Alabama, Trump addressed the 'Take A Knee' protests, telling his supporters; "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!'"

The "son of a bitch" comment immediately drew fire from a number of famous sportsmen, including basketball superstar Stephen Curry, who had been due to visit the White House with his Golden State Warriors team to celebrate their NBA Championship triumph.

When Curry said he would no longer visit the White House, Trump responded by tweeting that it didn't matter as his invitation had been withdrawn anyway, prompting basketball legend LeBron James to take to social media to call the president a "bum".

James tweeted to his 38 million followers - and directly at the president - to say: "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!"

Other sports stars have been forced to take sides. Football quarter-back Tom Brady, who with his super-model wife Gisele Bündchen is virtually American Royalty, had tried to avoid commenting on the president, who considers him a good friend.

But even Brady, the conservative-leaning, all-American football hero, yesterday came out to say: "I certainly disagree with what he [Trump] said. I thought it was just divisive."

It is one of the defining images of sport and protest of the 20th century - two black American athletes, Smith and Carlos, stand on the medal podium at the Olympics, their fists raised in the Black Power salute, protesting racism in their homeland. Both athletes suffered severe repercussions for their act.
It is one of the defining images of sport and protest of the 20th century - two black American athletes, Smith and Carlos, stand on the medal podium at the Olympics, their fists raised in the Black Power salute, protesting racism in their homeland. Both athletes suffered severe repercussions for their act.

NFL team owners - who almost to a man backed Trump when he was running for president - have expressed their deep dismay at Trump's attacks on their sport and on the players who have been moved to protest racism and a number of high-profile deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police. President Trump has taken a slow-burning issue that many had believed was fading from the headlines and turned it into the only game in town. Sunday's NFL coverage featured wall to wall coverage of Trump's tweets, the responses of the players, and spontaneous protests that even made it as far as the showcase NFL game in London, where dozens of players from the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars kneeled during the anthem.

The controversy has blown up as FIFA, soccer's world governing body, has quietly moved to defuse a similar issue, saying they would allow teams from the UK and Northern Ireland to wear Poppies around the November commemorations for the dead of World War I. FIFA has ruled the poppies are not a 'political' symbol, a compromise which should allow all sides to back away from what was becoming an ugly annual controversy with no winners. In America right now, any discussion of big time sport is a discussion about Trump, his "sons of bitches" comments and how the issue is deeply dividing a sports mad nation.

The reigning NBA champions - Stephen Curry's Golden State Warriors - have announced they are breaking with the tradition that sees championship teams visit the White House for a bit of back-slapping from the president.

A poll taken just before Trump re-ignited the Take A Knee controversy revealed that 66pc of Americans now see the president doing more to divide the country than unite it. Even at their lowest points, George W Bush and Barack Obama both peaked at 55pc on the same question. In the same poll, 62pc of Americans said they did not trust Trump to handle the North Korean crisis responsibly.

Some of the president's political allies and high-profile supporters have expressed their consternation at his focus on the Take A Knee protests when issues such as hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and growing tensions with North Korea should be taking up his time.

Once again, Trump has proved he is unable to pass up the opportunity to wade into a row he could stay out of, get involved in name-calling and pot-stirring and, ultimately, pick a fight that forces Americans to choose sides on a deeply divisive issue.

Five famous sports protests

Irish Olympian Peter  O'Connor - Athens, 1906

After winning Silver in the Long Jump at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, the great Wicklow athlete (and Irish patriot) Peter O'Connor scaled the flagpole at the medal ceremony to unveil a large green Irish flag with the legend "Erin Go Bragh". As O'Connor made sure an Irish flag flew before the Union Jack, two burly Irish-American Olympians fought off outraged officials at the bottom of the pole. O'Connor's act was the first overt political protest at the Olympics.

Tommie Smith & John Carlos - Mexico 1968

It is one of the defining images of sport and protest of the 20th century - two black American athletes, Smith and Carlos, stand on the medal podium at the Olympics, their fists raised in the Black Power salute, protesting racism in their homeland. Both athletes suffered severe repercussions for their act, as did (to a lesser extent) the third man on the podium, Australian Peter Norman, who supported their stand.

James McClean - Poppy protest

Derry born Premiership footballer James McClean has, for several years now, been fiercely criticised for refusing to wear the poppy on his jersey in November. McClean has said, in a letter explaining his position, that he has "complete respect" for those who died in the two World Wars, but cannot bring himself to wear a symbol he says many from his community also associate with the events of the Troubles, especially Bloody Sunday.

Muhammed Ali refuses the draft

In 1967, while in his prime as The Greatest, heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali was jailed for refusing the draft to fight in Vietnam, a stand that was lauded in later years, but was deeply unpopular with the American public at the time.

Suffragette Emily Davison

On June 8, 1913, suffragette Emily Davison ran on to the track during the Epsom Derby, dying instantly under the hooves of King George V's racehorse Anmer. It was one of the first political protests caught on film, a dramatic, tragic event which shocked the British public.

Irish Independent

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