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Super Bowl LII had everything — except protests

By ERIC MOUNT

Contributing columnist

What an unforgettable Super Bowl!  It wasn’t over until Brady’s last second Hail Mary pass was batted harmlessly to the turf.  And it lacked any remainders or reminders of what New York Times (January 2) sports writer John Brand called “the year’s biggest sports story” — the player protests.

By the last day of the year, the two league championship games saw fewer than twenty NFL players kneeling or sitting for the National Anthem, plus some locked arms, a few hands on shoulders, and at least one fist in the air. Did the fade-away at the Super Bowl mean that “the biggest story” of 2017 was forgotten — gone without a trace?  Maybe not.

The knee that rocked the world of American football and even the political scene was Colin Kaepernick’s, to be followed on one occasion by as many as a hundred protesters.  Called “a quarterback with conviction” by his former coach Jim Harbaugh and named one of America’s “100 most influential people” in 2017 by Time, Kaepernick chose this means of speaking out on issues of racial inequality and police brutality. He consulted with a former Green Beret and NFL  long-snapper before picking his posture. He meant no disrespect to our troops, and he did not mean to be unpatriotic. NBA coach Stan Van Grundy even went so far as to say, “Athletes who protest are patriots of the highest order.”  

President Trump did not see the protests that way. In one of his several tweets about player protests, he insisted that “the issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”  To cheering supporters at a campaign rally in Alabama he called the protesters “unpatriotic” and “sons of bitches.”

Along with loud support of these words, there was strong pushback — and from some surprising sources. The first team to play on the Sunday after the president’s remarks was the Jacksonville Jaguars (in London against the Baltimore Ravens).  Their owner, Shahid Khan, is the only nonwhite owner in the league, and his team plays in a city dominated by the military. He donated $1 million to the president‘s inauguration, but he had opposed Trump’s ban on immigration from several Muslim-majority countries.

Before the game, the team issued a statement; and after Khan consulted with several players, Coach Doug Marrone, and former coach Tom Coughlin, the team locked arms for the anthem, with a few electing to kneel. Khan locked arms with his team. When he reached his owner’s box, he had an email from the league’s commissioner Roger Goodell thanking him for his leadership.  

Photos of this action were immediately picked up by other teams, and owners across the country stood and locked arms with their players. New England Patriots’ owner Robert K. Kraft, who had also donated $1 million to the president’s inauguration, stated that he was “deeply disappointed” by the president’s speech. He expressed support of the players’ efforts to “peacefully effect social change,” but he remained out-of-sight while a dozen players knelt that first weekend in front of booing fans, and no Patriots protested the next weekend.

The owners of the Vikings, Zygi and Mark Wilt, locked arms with the players during the anthem the first weekend, but no one was protesting the next weekend. The Wilts issued a statement of appreciation for “diversity of thought” and encouraged “using this platform in a constructive manner.”

An owner deserving special mention is Jeffrey Lurie of the now-Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. With a doctoral degree in social policy and pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Jonas Salk in the lobby of his Eagles’ training facility, he supported his star safety Malcolm Jenkins (of the raised fist) and the players — particularly the Players Coalition (a group of 40 NFL players seeking solutions to particularly daunting problems facing African-Americans). He urged them to publicize their goals more clearly lest they be accused of being unpatriotic.

Before Trump lashed out at the league, Goodell, Lurie and league officials had already spent a day in Philadelphia with Jenkins and other players, meeting with the police commissioner and public defenders, sitting in on bail hearings, and hearing from former prisoners about the difficulties of reentry in society.

Jenkins and the coalition followed that lead, meeting with leaders of police departments, bail officers and lawmakers. They  visited prisons and courts and met repeatedly with top NFL executives. In response, the NFL announced in December that it would spend $89 million over seven years to help grassroots groups fight inequality.

Four league owners, three current players and two retired players make up a committee to choose the programs and initiatives to support. Among the goals being pursued are ameliorating harsh sentencing (particularly from the War on Drugs that disproportionately targeted people of color in the 80s and 90s), enacting clean slate laws, eliminating cash bail, reforming juvenile justice (in states five times more likely to lock up black kids than white ones), and ending police brutality and bias.

The Super Bowl may have made it seem that the protests had come and gone, but the efforts of the Players Coalition and others galvanized by the protests suggest that we have not heard the last of the causes they espouse. If we include the spin-off from football to prominent figures in other sports, we might understand why the three Time reporters in an Oct. 9 article (Ben Goldberger, Philip Elliott, and Zeke J. Miller) could label the protests “the largest, most potent demonstration of social activism among athletes in the history of the U.S.”

How then do we assess winners and losers?  Colin Kaepernick apparently forfeited the chance to continue as a quarterback in the NFL, and he received less than a third of his seven year, “guaranteed” $126 million contract. At its height, the protests involved only 12 percent of NFL players. An Ipsos/Rueters survey released on Sept. 26 found 58% of respondents saying that standing during the National Anthem should be required. President Trump got ardent reinforcement from his base.

Nevertheless, as former wide receiver Anquan Boldin, a co-founder of the Players Coalition who ended his career to work on criminal justice reform, said, “Listening to the players, giving us a seat at the table — it was something we wanted.”  And what those who listened heard was that, contrary to our president’s claim, the protest was about racism, our nation’s original and besetting sin.