Despite all the troubles America faces, at home and abroad, President Trump has made kneeling in protest while the national anthem is performed at NFL games his No. 1 issue.
In the past week, Trump has fired off a dozen Tweets or more condemning any football player who takes the knee during the opening patriotic ceremony, urging the NFL to adopt a rule prohibiting such behavior, and demanding that players who do be fired.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b - - - h off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump said at a campaign-style rally last Friday in Huntsville, Ala.
What followed was an explosion of divisive controversy, bitter debate and fierce arguments that made headlines across the country.
When last weekend’s games began, “Virtually all NFL players on the sidelines before kickoff of Sunday’s slate of 14 games locked arms with each other in response to President Trump’s three-day campaign,” the Washington Post reported.
“The silent rebuke to the president, determined independently by each of the 28 NFL teams in action Sunday, represented an unprecedented collective action and show of solidarity among players…,” the newspaper reported.
Some players on other teams kneeled, others stood, and some remained in their locker room during the pre-game ceremony.
But on the whole, it was a demonstration of solidarity among players, coaches, and owners against Trump’s effort to turn a protest, sparked by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, into, well, a political football.
Many team owners issued statements defending the rights of their players to express themselves on issues that trouble them. And in Kaepernick’s case, it was the growing number of young blacks killed by police in recent years.
One of them was New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft who has been one of Trump’s strongest supporters who donated $1 million to his inaugural. But now Kraft said he was “deeply disappointed” in the president’s remarks.
“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports and, unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,” Kraft said in his statement on Sunday that contained this cautionary advice for Trump:
“I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.
But Trump, seeking to boost his declining job approval polls, had seized a political issue that plays to his political base.
However, this time he picked on a popular sport whose core strategy is built on “team work.”
Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ star quarterback,
and a longtime friend of Trump made it clear he didn’t like the president’s attacks, either.
“I certainly disagree with what he said,” Brady remarked on WEEI in Boston. “I thought it was just divisive.”
The storm of controversy Trump ignited was reminiscent of a raging political battle many years ago over crazy left-wing protesters who burned the American flag.
It led to widespread calls for legislation to make such an activity a crime that turned into a major political issue, especially war veterans.
American Legion Magazine at the time asked me to interview former Secretary of State Colin Powell and to specifically seek his views about it.
But Powell made it clear in no uncertain terms that he opposed any such action.
In a letter to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy on May 18, 1999, Powell wrote this:
“The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous.
“I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will still be flying proudly long after they have slunk away.”
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…”
That amendment has been challenged many times in the courts over the course of our history but has never been overturned.
In 1989, in a case where a protester set fire to a flag, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. Johnson that flag burning is protected by the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause.
Among all of the ills and issues that threaten our nation and our way of life, the president has to carefully choose which ones deserve his attention.
Focusing on the actions of one aggrieved, unemployed football player, who wants to express his justifiable anger over racial transgressions by refusing to stand during the national anthem, pales in comparison to the bigger issues that confront our country.
Mr. President, let’s get back to the business of running our country.