By Steve Stajich
It seems that if we are to cut through the fog of the current dust-up about NFL players expressing themselves during the playing of the national anthem at games, we will first need to take a definitive look at what NFL players are. Are they entertainment performers? Are they workers albeit in a form of work that largely defines itself as nationally shared entertainment? Are they heroes in any sense of the word?
Or… are they chattel, property owned by dint of contracts with those who own and control the teams; those doing the paying out on the contracts who are unabashedly called “owners.”
In our quest for that more definitive answer we can look to the past at those player athletes who seem to have never been confused about whether they were citizens entitled to having an opinion just as much as any steel worker or auto worker. One of the most impressive of these was boxer Cassius Clay, who became a Muslim and took the name Muhammed Ali. Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, saying that his faith caused him to take no part in wars. Ali didn’t kneel; instead he took a stand and was stripped of his heavyweight title. Boxing, a sport in which two men literally attempt to beat each other unconscious, decided that Ali did not have the right to express his faith and still hang on to his status in their sports organization.
In previous instances that questioned whether NFL players get to speak or express an opinion as citizens there has always been an ugly blowback strongly suggesting that fans – the people that buy the tickets and souvenirs generating billions of dollars – are owed some sort of “just shut up and play football” loyalty. Now that we have the wonderful Internet, we can all share these opinions about players instantly. It can get ugly online when music or film entertainers, especially women, chose to state their opinions and then feel the heat of a similar “just shut up and play your role” reaction.
Part of what might be happening right now, especially when you fold in what is becoming known about head injuries to NFL players, is that football itself may be on the threshold of becoming an anachronism. One could argue that society as a whole is growing out of its need for violent live entertainment where people are injured for life in the cause of something to watch on TV on Sunday afternoon. Boxing was one of the earliest sports to transfer to the emerging medium of television, underwritten by advertising from shaving creams and cigars. Boxing fit the new medium of TV perfectly, since a viewer of any age could fully understand what was happening and the action was mostly covered by one camera focused on the ring. Ali later paid a dear price for our appetite for that entertainment.
Not helping any of this, as is his way, the current President recently posited that football would benefit by getting more head-on and violent… although his sports credentials as an overweight golfer puts very little momentum behind that notion.
Still, football is a long way off from becoming antiquated. A parallel might be strip clubs or “gentleman’s clubs” where everyone knows that the activity inside is socially retrograde. And yet… the brass poles stay busy. How interesting if there was a gesture by the “dancers” before starting their show that was the equivalent of NFL players protest kneeling. Imagine that a “showgirl” was able – by merely making a physical gesture before performing – to say, in effect, “I don’t approve of writhing naked for men who might have voted for the current President and I also want action on police shootings, but I will nevertheless do this ridiculous wiggling for suckers overpaying for drinks.”
As of Monday of this week, it seemed that the current President didn’t actually understand the kneeling issue from the player’s point of view. He lashed out at those kneeling by attacking their mothers, calling the any player who protested “a son of bitch.” Oh, and they should be fired. He later said hooking arms was okay, but kneeling was wrong. In both cases, he appeared oblivious to the fact that the players were talking to him. Then athletes did start talking to him, with basketball player LeBron James directly referencing the current President.
Can a superstar like LeBron speak his mind, but the rank and file NFL players are exposed to fan ridicule and attacks of being unpatriotic? Sometimes those who live in the castle get to do more talking. I used to joke that frustrated actors and comics not getting what they wanted from show business and then railing against that industry’s inherent unfairness were the equivalent of an unemployed lumberjack standing on a table and hurling insults at lumber and wood. The NFL players don’t hate football and they certainly don’t hate America. They only want to be able to speak, even silently, to systemic racism. Thanks to our current President, their actions now seem to be about their rights as citizens. Regardless of any precise definition of what NFL players are in the context of our society, they are most assuredly citizens of the United States.