BUFFALO – Donald Trump wasn’t the president of the United States when Colin Kaepernick started his silent protest over police brutality against people of color last year. That protest was never about Trump. But you could argue that Trump worked hard to make Kaepernick’s protest and subsequent exclusion from the NFL about him over the last few months. He crowed about preventing Kaepernick from getting work in the NFL. And on Friday in Alabama, he drew cheers for calling Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” at a rally that had nothing to do with the unemployed quarterback.
Hours later, after watching a segment on Fox and Friends about Stephen Curry’s polite decline of a hypothetical invite to the White House, Trump abruptly tweeted that Curry and the Warriors weren’t allowed at the White House. Sometime that Saturday, perhaps through some combination of those incidents, athletes in America — especially athletes of color — realized that Donald Trump didn’t care about them. They realized his inflexibility.
Trump has long showed he’s unable to care about anyone other than himself and his supposed ‘base’ of supporters. But all that talk and empty rhetoric was made real for the athletes that dominate our sports headlines.
LeBron James — arguably the most important athlete of our generation — called the sitting president a “bum.” Curry and his Warriors teammates had to come to grips with the president tweeting about them in real time. And the NFL buzzed about mass protests on Sunday.
Trump kept tweeting through it, but the protests came en masse. He tried to justify linking arms and decried kneeling. Entire teams refused to appear for the national anthem. It was perhaps the most political day in the history of a league that often takes a stand for nothing in particular. On Sunday, players took it upon themselves to — as many mentioned specifically — defend the shield and the brotherhood of players that make up the National Football League.
Somewhere out there is an alternate dimension where Terry Pegula doesn’t own the Bills. He never bid on the team and, instead, the only other bidder, Donald Trump, owns the team. In this universe it’s unlikely Trump runs for president, and instead is just an NFL owner with a very active Twitter account when he says Kaepernick and people who kneel aren’t welcome on his team. But many of those owners — even those like Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who considers Trump a friend — were forced to condemn his words over the weekend.
Others who previously spoke out against Kaepernick and his protest were swayed by Trump’s words as well. Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy defended the peaceful right to protest on Sunday after the Bills beat the Broncos, 26-16. But he did far more than that in his postgame comments.
Namely, he said he changed his mind about the former Super Bowl quarterback. Just weeks earlier, he was a prominent voice critical of Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the anthem while he was in the league. Yet less than a year after Kaepernick earned his first start at quarterback for the 49ers after his protest began, McCoy took a knee a day after calling the president an “a**hole” on Twitter.
After the game Sunday, McCoy admitted he never pictured himself protesting like that but that the situation in America had changed dramatically.
“The good thing about this country is you can do what you want,” McCoy said following the Bills win over the Broncos. “The freedom to express yourself. I felt that that’s something (Kaepernick) wanted to do, it’s perfectly fine. At the time I thought I wouldn’t do something like that. And then you hear different remarks and comments from our leader. From our president. Of the United States. This is a great country. People strive hard to get over here. Do a lot of different things to get over here. For a reason. When your leader, your president, has those different comments. It just, it’s hard for me to respect and try to represent something that I don’t believe in.”
The ability to change your mind, to be educated on a topic and form a better picture based on that fuller understanding, will be essential to the discourse in this nation moving forward. The fundamental difference between someone like McCoy and someone like Trump is that Shady is malleable, and can change his mind about something based on the circumstances.
McCoy learned just like a lot of players over the weekend that Trump cannot change who he is. But the rest of us can.
There’s talk about boycotting the NFL now because of the rash of protests against Trump. But the weakest possible brand of patriotism in this nation is the formal show of respect for the National Anthem before sporting events. All those ‘salute to the troops’ segments you’ve stood and cheered in recent years are sponsored segments, paid patriotism that’s very much en vogue but means little. The pilot of the jet flying overhead cannot hear your cheers. True patriotism is not the drunken “U-S-A” chant you start in your section while forgetting to take your hat off during the anthem. And it’s far more complicated than taking a side because someone tweets that NFL players that kneel are somehow unamerican.
Like McCoy said on Sunday, despite all our problems this country is a beacon for people who want the American dream. Trump’s inflexibility, his inability to see beyond himself and put himself in the shoes of others, is a deficiency that’s crippled his presidency. But America is and always has been a country that’s a work in progress. The entire American experiment at its core is about change. About growth and opportunities to learn and try something new. It got slavery wrong. It got civil rights wrong for both people of color and women. In many ways, equality is not there yet.
This past weekend was a huge demarcation point for the NFL, the NBA and its players. It’s something that cannot be overstated: what happened on Sunday is the new reality in sports. Players intend to keep these protests going. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo’s starting quarterback who didn’t kneel because he was busy praying, said he expects protests to continue and become “proactive.”
“In the best case scenario you want to be proactive,” Taylor said. “Of course today was kind of reactive because (Trump) said something that people felt the need to go out and do things, but moving forward in order to get the response out of it that we are looking for ultimately we need to be proactive.”
The way forward for these players remains unclear, but Trump’s insistence to wedge himself into the Colin Kapernick debate backfired in a remarkable way. No longer is it one mid-range quarterback taking a stand (or knee) against an abstract concept. The NFL now has on its hands dozens, perhaps hundreds, of athletes from varied backgrounds and ethnicities united against Donald Trump and his command of absolute obedience. The president haphazardly united the National Football League in a way few ever have.
What happens next is uncertain. It’s absolutely unchartered territory. But no one that knelt on the field on Sunday or spoke out in the locker room seems willing to stay quiet anymore.