The proud tradition of athlete activists has always included a critique of US militarism.
NFL public-relations flak Brian McCarthy put the word out 16 minutes before kickoff: “NFL teams will hold moments of silence today before the National Anthem to salute our veterans & active duty service members for their service & sacrifice.”
On Veterans Day weekend, this “salute” included team personnel wearing camouflage, players with army-green sideline gear emblazoned with American flags (available to purchase online courtesy of Nike), Armed Forces vets leading teams out of the tunnel, and network halftime specials staged at military bases.
Little of this was done out of the goodness of the NFL’s heart, and it wasn’t only because of the league’s commercial partnership with the Department of Defense. This held the overpowering stench of damage control.
The unprecedented player protests against racism, staged during the anthem, have led to an ugly backlash led by Donald Trump and his right-wing echo chamber. They have attempted to reframe these protests as somehow against the flag, the anthem, or the military. Even though this is a lie, and even though public sentiment has shifted toward the players, this was the NFL’s skittish response—and it was laid on so thick, one wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen the players take the field in Kevlar.
It’s not just the NFL as a corporate entity that was on defense. Players fighting the slander that their protest aims are “anti-military” have gone out of their way to write, post, and speak about their own family members in the armed forces. Several of the most prominent athletes protesting racism were even featured in an NFL-produced “salute to service” ad. This is clearly a coordinated—and understandable—effort between the NFL and these players to head off this line of attack. One player said to me, “We’re not against the flag or the troops. But we have to make that clear as a form of protection. People will kill you in this country if they think that you’re against the flag.”
Yet the NFL and protesting players are giving ground to a frightening authoritarian idea, articulated on Twitter by ESPN journalist Howard Bryant: “Protesting police brutality has nothing to do with United States Armed Forces. You don’t need their blessing or permission to demonstrate. Ever.”
This defensive posture also implicitly puts the military in a sacred space, protected from even the thought of criticism. The mere idea of an athlete protesting the aims of the armed forces is now spoken about as if it is the third rail of political dissent—practically unimaginable in the current climate. But confronting militarism is part of the very tradition of athlete activists often cited by these NFL protesters and their defenders.
Muhammad Ali always connected the fight against racism at home with the racism that allowed the prosecution of the Vietnam War, saying, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over?” He also in five words etched in stone that connection between racism at home and abroad when he said of the Vietnamese people, “They never called me n——.”
We don’t even have to go that far in the past. NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s 1996 silent protests during the anthem were inspired by learning about US foreign policy and the undemocratic installation of dictators in Latin America and the Middle East. It’s why he said that he believed that the flag was “a symbol of freedom and democracy for some and a symbol of oppression and tyranny to others.”
Then after 9/11, as the first year of our never-ending war in Afghanistan was underway, Toronto Blue Jay Carlos Delgado rejected the idea of coming onto the steps for a second national anthem instituted by Major League Baseball, “God Bless America.”
Delgado said, “I never stay outside for ‘God Bless America.’ I don’t [stand] because I don’t believe it’s right, I don’t believe in the war…. It’s a very terrible thing that happened on September 11…. It’s [also] a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it’s the stupidest war ever.”
It wasn’t just Delgado. NBA players Etan Thomas, Steve Nash, Josh Howard, and NFL players Adalius Thomas and Scott Fujita also spoke out against the war. Even the voice of the person that the NFL holds up as its iron-clad connection to the military, the late Pat Tillman, was heard posthumously calling the war “fucking illegal.” He was also killed in Afghanistan under circumstances that still hold unanswered questions raised by his family. The league did not speak about this part of Tillman’s history when it honored him on Sunday.
The military is not a sacred cow and never can be, not just for the sake of democratic norms, and not just for the sake of those around the world living beneath the ever expanding US military footprint, but also for the sake of those who serve. There is a pressing need to support decent health care for vets. There is a need to stand with female troops who this year issued a record number of sexual assault complaints. There is a need to aid those blowing the whistle on racism in the ranks. This year, a poll of troops found that one in four had witnessed fellow soldiers’ expressing views described as “white nationalism.” This is terrifying. The NFL propaganda machine hides this reality and turns Veterans Day away from the needs of the actual living, breathing troops, and into a celebration of the branches of the armed forces, the brass, the Department of Defense, and, by extension, war itself.
Players have every right to demand that Trump and the media be honest about what they are protesting and not protesting. They are fighting racism, not the anthem, the flag, the military, or whatever else Fox News pretends to be defending this week. That doesn’t mean—at all—that they need to beg deference from those very armed forces, not to mention a draft-dodging president, right-wing radio hosts, or anonymous Twitter trolls. That won’t protect them from criticism and will only embolden those, from the ownership box to the racist fringe, who want them to “just shut up and play.” Submitting to this also cuts them off from many people—and many vets—inspired by their stance against racism and repelled by the endless militarized nationalism on NFL Sunday. Now is not the time for timidity or silence. It’s worth remembering Muhammad Ali’s words: “A rooster crows only when it sees the light. Put him in the dark and he’ll never crow. I have seen the light and I’m crowing.”