The power of group energies and team cohesion has been on display recently, and we have President Trump to thank. His most recent comments and tweets about racial prejudice, and about certain athletes’ responses, have triggered a massive backlash that speaks volumes about the transformative power of team chemistry. So even though The SEC Group doesn’t usually delve into issues of partisan politics, these unique events merit an SEC-tinged response.
Most readers are already familiar with the protest action taken last year by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who watched on bent knee during the pre-game national anthems throughout the season as a way of protesting police violence against people of color. Coincidentally or not, he was released by the team at the end of that year and has not been picked up by any of the 31 other NFL teams, even as backup or 3rd string insurance QB. The teams insist it’s a matter of skill rather than an attempt to quash public protests, but opinions differ on that score (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2017/aug/29/colin-kaepernick-protest-blackball-nfl).
Several NFL athletes voiced support for Colin last year by wondering aloud why he hadn’t yet been signed, but it was something of a quiet undercurrent of support until the recent actions by our President. After making some inflammatory remarks about the recent ugly protest march in Charlottesville, he followed up at the start of the new NFL season earlier this month, by letting people know how he felt about Kaepernick’s protest, saying that the offending “son of a bitch” should be fired for disrespecting our flag and our veterans. Putting aside for a moment the question of why America is the only country that plays its national anthem before routine sporting events, and why fighter bomber flyovers are part of that pre-game ceremony, the response to Trump has been swift.
Fellow NFL players began to speak out individually in support, with KC’s Alex Smith raising a potent question: “Why is our president condemning football players more harshly than white supremacists?” (referring to Trump’s comments about Charlottesville). Michael Bennett, a black player on the Seattle Seahawks, had just described to the media his recent arrest on the basis of his color, and how the “police threatened to blow my fucking head off” (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/sep/06/michael-bennett-police-las-vegas-nfl).
In the days leading up to the first Sunday of the NFL season, word began to spread about possible game-time protests on a large scale. President Trump predicted that the players and the owners would support him rather than the protesters, but he was wrong. TV viewers saw extended pre-game coverage of the issue, and there was none of the usual cutting away to a commercial during the singing of the national anthem. One singer actually kneeled during the final verse, and many teams were shown locking arms with their teammates in solidarity, with several owners joining in (including Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, whom Trump had named ahead of time as one of his sure supporters).
On the Boston scene, where I live and root, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Team owner Robert Kraft had been public about his friendship with the President, and star QB Tom Brady had made several positive comments about Trump last year. So it was quite a surprise, and a thrilling one at that, to see well over a dozen Patriots “taking a knee” a la Kaepernick, with the rest of them (including Brady) locking their arms in solidarity. Kraft and Brady were both quoted later as disapproving of Trump’s “divisive” language, a term that was the common denominator in protests. Much like the Patrios photo below, an impressive gallery of photos across the league is here: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/gallery/2017/sep/24/nfl-players-protest-anthem-donald-trump-pictures.
And it wasn’t just the NFL – several NBA greats have been outspoken (from LeBron James and Bill Russell, to Steph Curry – whom the President uninvited from an awards ceremony after Curry had announced he wouldn’t attend). In fact, Curry’s entire team – the Golden State Warriors – decided in response not to attend the traditional White House ceremony honoring their NBA championship the previous year. This was the most powerful example of team chemistry I’ve seen in a long time – not letting a teammate hang out to dry in the arena of public opinion, but to stick together in solidarity, even in opposition to the President of the United States. As one sportswriter put it, “If Trumps goal was to divide the NFL and its players, he failed – bigly” (https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/patriots/2017/09/24/president-comments-united-nfl-and-its-players/EpYiFSk2fn2WWvVqhVOC6I/story.html)
And the ripple effects continued. Baseball got involved, with the Red Sox manager saying that his players were free to express whatever viewpoint they had; in other words they could enjoy freedom of speech without jeopardizing their jobs. NASCAR, the auto racing league usually associated with conservative Southern “good ol’ boys”, saw its top star, Dale Earnhart Jr., voice support for the NFL players. Even Stevie Wonder took a knee! On the other hand, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the NHL’s hockey champions, have agreed to visit with the President, perhaps a reflection of the fact that no members of this team are African-American.
It’s hard to say where this will end, but it has given mainstream (and largely white) America perhaps its best view yet of how pervasive the burden of racial prejudice is among people of color.There are certainly many cultural and economic problems that America has long ignored, but the tip of a massive cultural iceberg is finally being acknowledged to exist, and to be huge. Ironically, pro athletes are so respected as talented celebrities that their views have uncommon weight, and they have become the mouthpieces for what in other decades was primarily a political, more than a socio-cultural, struggle. If millions of sports fans are inspired by their idols to take a closer look at racism in America, big changes can follow. As one sportswriter put it, “If Trumps goal was to divide the NFL and its players, he failed – bigly” (https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/patriots/2017/09/24/president-comments-united-nfl-and-its-players/EpYiFSk2fn2WWvVqhVOC6I/story.html)
This team cohesion shown by so many of these pro sports athletes and their teams has been inspiring and uplifting to many (though of course many others have joined the President in being highly critical of these actions). These events have provided the nation with a sort of “I am Spartacus” moment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKCmyiljKo0) that clearly demonstrates how the solidarity of athletes has the potential to trigger social transformation by reminding us that we’re all in this together. It was – and will continue to be – exciting to watch this process unfold.
Post-script: Almost 50 years ago, another pro football player staged a public protest, against the war in Viet Nam, by taking off his helmet during the national anthem. That anti-war gesture led to the benching of the player, The SEC Group’s own David Meggyesy. His brave act still reverberates a half-century later. https://sports.yahoo.com/almost-50-years-kaepernicks-protest-one-nfl-player-made-similar-statement-032644875.html