Are you ready for another year of NFL protest debate?

Jay Busbee
·7 min read

Back during the early days of the quarantine, when there were absolutely no sports on whatsoever, we all cast our minds back to seasons past — championship runs, miracle finishes, stars at their very peak.

Strangely, though, nobody really seemed to want to look back fondly on the fall of 2017 — the year when protests riled the NFL, when the president of the United States called a player who knelt a “son of bitch,” when patriotism and politics turned conversation hostile virtually every week of the season. It was not football’s finest moment.

So ... guess what’s coming back for the 2020 season?

Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump sat down for a radio interview with Outkick’s Clay Travis. Trump is a knowledgeable sports fan, and the conversation proceeded through a range of topics — Tom Brady in Tampa, Jordan vs. LeBron — and protests during the anthem came up.

“You have to stand for your flag, and you have to respect your flag and your country,” Trump said. “You’re making millions of dollars a year playing a sport you’d be playing anyway, they’d be playing it on the weekends. And they have to respect their country. If they don’t, frankly, if the NFL didn’t open I’d be very happy. If they don’t stand for their flag and stand strongly, I’d be very happy if they didn’t open.”

It’s a familiar tune, but Trump’s now playing it to a changed audience.

Colin Kaepernick inspired the NFL protest debate in 2016. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Colin Kaepernick inspired the NFL protest debate in 2016. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

Back in 2016, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the only player kneeling in support of racial justice. A few scattered players joined him, but the movement was largely an individual one until Trump attacked Kaepernick at a rally early in the 2017 season. At that point, hundreds of players knelt, both in support of Kaepernick and in protest of Trump himself.

But time rolls on, and the protest numbers dwindled, in part because Kaepernick couldn’t find a job in the league after the 2016 season.

Then the pandemic arrived, and soon afterward, the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. That ignited America like a match to dry tinder. Millions of Americans took to the streets to protest police violence — the exact cause Kaepernick had knelt for nearly four years before — and kneeling became a common form of protest at sporting events literally around the world. Kaepernick’s name, message and form of protest are now ubiquitous.

Even the NFL, where this all started, took a fresh look at protests, and a surprising consensus emerged. No longer afraid of being ostracized the way Kaepernick was, players have stepped up and announced intentions that would have been unthinkable four years ago:

Saints running back Alvin Kamara:I’ve been in enough situations where the color of my skin was seen as a big enough threat to cost me my life. And I know there are countless others that that fit my description that could say the same. I can kneel confidently because I know that with just that small gesture, a much bigger message is being conveyed. And also within that gesture the voices of those who no longer have a voice can be heard.”

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who said he “absolutely” plans to kneel: “I have the utmost respect for our military, cops, and people that serve OUR country. It’s about equality and everybody being treated the same because we are all human. It’s been ignored for too long and that it my fault as well for not becoming more educated and staying silent. If I lose fans, that’s OK. I’ve always spoken my mind. And that’s from the heart.”

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray:I’ll definitely be taking a knee.”

Texans coach Bill O’Brien:I’ll take a knee. I’m all for it. The players have a right to protest, a right to be heard, and a right to be who they are. They’re not taking a knee because they’re against our flag. They’re taking a knee because they haven’t been treated equally in this country for over 400 years.”

It’s likely players won’t take well to Trump’s declaration that he’d be “very happy” if a protesting NFL didn’t play a game, or his demands that “they have to respect their country.” To cast the protesters as unpatriotic, and then attack them on that basis, is to deliberately obscure and muddle the message of racial justice that’s at the heart of the protests.

It’s akin to a football coach telling his team that next week’s opponent doesn’t just want to win the game, they want to come claim your family, take your car and kick you out of your house. It’s useful as a motivational tactic, but it has very little to do with the reality in front of you.

For Trump, who’s locked in a tight battle for the presidency, the immediate benefits of attacking protesters are obvious. “You have to respect your flag and your country” has been a red-meat issue since the founding of the republic. At his rallies in 2017, Trump drew resounding cheers every time he attacked Kaepernick, and to this day, Kaepernick’s very image stirs the kind of animus that Trump can use to his benefit.

The larger issue for Trump is that since 2017, and particularly in the wake of racial justice protests earlier this summer, America’s attitudes have shifted dramatically. A majority of Americans — 52 percent — now believe it is “OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans,” according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll in June. That’s almost double the support — 28 percent — that protests had in 2017. Thirty-six percent — a number that roughly corresponds to the unshakeable base of support Trump has enjoyed through his entire presidency — still believe protests at NFL games are “inappropriate.”

You know how this will proceed from here. This is a by-the-numbers cover version, and you already know every beat. And like a lifeless movie sequel, you know exactly how it will end. The players will kneel. The president will call them out. They’ll battle over Twitter, good-faith and bad-faith arguments alike stoking the flames ever higher.

A suggestion, if I may: “sticking to sports” isn’t an option anymore, not when the President of the United States is riffing like a sports talk radio host. But you don’t have to get involved in this back-and-forth debate yet again. You don’t have to get down in the muck and sling the same arguments from four years ago to people who won’t listen. You can believe what you believe and keep it at that, or you can take the bold-for-2020 step of just listening to other views.

And along the way, you should really enjoy some football, regardless of what happens before the kickoff.

President Donald Trump will continue to play a role in the NFL protest debate. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump will continue to play a role in the NFL protest debate. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com with tips and story ideas.

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