This is the second in a 4-part series exploring the ongoing saga of the protests taking place in the NFL. For context, I recommend starting with Part 1, in which I explore the respectability of the posture. In this post I will explore some of the common responses to the protest by those who wish to leverage them in service of varying agendas.
The Attempt to Minimize
The first inevitable question that arises is, “Aren’t there more important things to be talking about?” There’s something subtly disingenuous about the question to begin with, since (1) the person asking it typically is, in fact, talking about it, in order to express their own opinion on the matter, and (2) that opinion is often (not always, to be fair) not so much that they find other things to be more important, but just that they don’t find this cause to be worthy (in which case, just say that). But even if the answer is Yes—the obvious implied answer from the questioner—we need not subscribe to the false choice of conversations on one issue necessarily taking away from conversations on the others. The conversation around racial disparities in our country is important, whether you believe the NFL protests are effective in advancing that conversation or not. Disaster relief, mass shootings, and tensions with hostile foreign powers are also important. Are they more important? I’m uninterested in taking the bait of that question’s unspoken intent to minimize the issue by virtue of creating a faux hierarchy. They need not be in competition; talk and act on them all.
The Attempt to Dismiss
The common #StickToSports catchphrase is essentially saying, “I tune in to sporting events to be entertained, not to hear your opinion.” Aside from containing a subtle condescending air toward athletes, it smacks a little of the entitled, “You’re violating my safe space” response I addressed in part 1. But I’d make a larger point: like it or not, sports is woven into the cultural fabric of American life, and as such, has always carried intersectional touchstones to other areas of life that transcend mere athletic achievement. Stories of courage and mental conviction, to overcoming adversity, to profound faith, to political provocation, to challenging racial and gender barriers, to breaking down international walls. The examples are beyond measure, from Jackie Robinson, to Eric Liddell, to the pioneers of Title IX, to soccer matches during the famous WWI Christmas Truce, to countless examples in the Olympics through the years… we could go on for days. Not everyone is a sports fan, but it’s hard to deny their power and relevance even if you’re not. And if we try to prevent sports from crossing any cultural boundaries outside the strict corral of physical athleticism alone (whether we agree that would be a good thing or not), that effort is going to fail. History has proven that’s just never going to happen. So we might as well just embrace the conversations it inevitably sparks, disagreements and all.
The Attempt to Discredit
The next tactic usually attacks the protestors themselves as not having earned the necessary credentials to have a voice in the debate. Here’s a common refrain: “They’re not oppressed! They’re overpaid millionaires who get paid to play a game.” Of course, many of those players have overcome various forms of discrimination on their road to stardom (some even more recently, as in the case of Michael Bennett), but even if that weren’t the case, why should that matter? They’re using their platform to bring awareness to a problem beyond just their own personal experience, advocating on behalf of those without as big a voice; so if they’re not oppressed themselves, then that makes it a selfless act.
Again, you can debate the legitimacy of the problem to which they’re drawing awareness separately, but let’s not pretend that their millionaire status precludes them from having a voice in this. They’ve worked hard to get where they are and I don’t begrudge them their money. Are they overpaid? Well, if you believe in the free market, then they’re paid exactly what they deserve as dictated by what the consumers of their entertainment are willing to spend, but we’ll save the economic lesson for another day. It’s just a red herring not germane to the discussion, anymore than a player’s level of on-field skill or whether or not they’re black enough, additional logical fallacies unnecessary to respond to separately.
The Attempt to Co-Opt
When all else fails, make it about something else. This is where the posturing comes in—a prime example being the narrative around the protestors being ungrateful for those who have fought and died for their freedom. Who, after all, would ever be justified in being ungrateful to those who have fought and died for their freedom? Never mind that the players have insisted they’re not ungrateful to those who have fought and died for their freedom—it matters not; in fact it makes the tactic all the more effective. You see, I just repeated the phrase 3 times, and it matters not whether some of those repetitions are explanatory clarifications or refutations—the repetition itself cements in the public eye that that’s what the issue is about. And thus you see how straw man arguments, even though a logical fallacy, can be annoyingly stubborn to counter.
The high-profile figures who employ these straw-man tactics typically care little about the issue itself, and more about rallying support to their tribe. Mike Pence’s staged walkout from the Colts-49ers game last week was an expensive PR stunt clearly meant to galvanize a partisan base that the administration had no doubt it would play well with. All politicians, right and left, do this, but we should recognize it as no more than capitalizing on the political theater of it. In reality, the issue should be independent of the right-left divide, but like everything else, it’s easier to herd the masses into the predictable trenches dug by those tribes than to promote thoughtful dialogue on the issue; the politicians play that game because we too often let them win at it.
The Attempt to Coerce
Far more concerning, however, were the president’s comments on the matter in the preceding weeks. Even if you’re adamantly opposed to the protestors and their cause, if we’re not equally bothered by the leader of the free world, who is sworn to defend and protect our constitution, endorsing punitive action against people exercising a constitutional right, we can’t really turn around and call ourselves patriotic.
This was a clear violation of conservative values in particular, but should transcend partisan divide. The liberty-minded take umbrage when the highest officer of the executive branch, the branch of government responsible for the enforcement of law, expresses an anti-free speech value. Even if he’s encouraging a private, non-government entity to do it (and therefore he hasn’t broken any law, as defenders have pointed out), it’s still an anti-free speech value, and I find that dangerous, because he’s the one sworn to protect those values. If he wants to express those opinions as a free citizen when he’s out of office, fine. There’s a higher accountability necessary for officers of the state on things like this.
That’s probably why even the conservative publication The National Review published an article leveling this same criticism against the president. And why certain NFL owners and others who had supported Trump chose to make a defiant statement against his weigh-in. It suddenly became about more than the anthem; it became about executive overreach, a repudiation of power they understand the government simply doesn’t have, and a clear statement that they won’t be bullied in such a fashion by an agent of the state. Liberty supersedes partisan loyalty, and true patriots will not tolerate government officials suggesting punitive action for constitutionally protected rights—period.
But more on this patriotism angle in my next post. Stay tuned for Part 3 in the coming days.