They kneeled, they held hands, they locked arms, they dropped heads, in one case, an entire team didn’t even take the field. A practice that started last year with one quarterback and one national anthem reached its most expansive level Sunday, across America and even to London, where two NFL teams were playing. You can applaud it — as pundits have — or boo it — as fans at Ford Field did Sunday — but this time there was no denying who was behind it:
It wasn’t police brutality. It wasn’t Black Lives Matter. When Donald Trump, at a political rally in Alabama on Friday night, felt the need to say: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!’?” — he changed the narrative.
And the players protesting Sunday were largely protesting him.
So were the NFL owners — including at least 14 who issued statements condemning Trump’s remarks, and including Martha Firestone Ford, the 92-year-old matron of the Ford family, who stood with her players and daughters arm in arm Sunday, during the anthem.
Did you ever think you’d see that?
Now let me say straight off, I have not been in favor of these protests in the past. I’ve written so in this newspaper. I felt there were better places and ways to express your First Amendment rights than during the anthem at a sporting event, that the message was getting muddled in hate and anger and football, and that the flag did not stand for the things that were being protested — in fact, in many ways, it stood for the opposite.
But the flag wasn’t front and center Sunday. Words were. Words like “son of a bitch” and “fired.” And if we’re being honest, most of us wouldn’t want those words associated with us at our jobs, and certainly not from the highest office in the land.
Embarrassment to the office
Go watch the YouTube video of Trump’s speech. Please. The whole thing. It wasn’t just that comment. In a preening, smug, whip-up-the-crowd talk, at a “political rally” (and, I’m sorry, I don’t know why a president needs to hold rallies in the first year of his term), Trump trashed the players, the game, the owners, the drooping TV ratings.
He moved back and forth, smirking, enjoying the applause. These were not prepared remarks. This was not a well-written speech, in the tradition of American presidents gone by.
Trump rambled like a guest speaker at a comedy convention, he spit out “You’re Fired” like he was doing a greatest hits routine. He told the crowd the reason NFL ratings were down was “because they like watching what’s happening with” — he put his hands on his chest proudly — “Yours truly.”
Honestly? Come on. It shouldn’t matter if you voted for Trump or voted against Hillary Clinton or staunchly believe in his ideals or hate people who don’t agree with you.
Objectively, this rant in Alabama was an embarrassment. It was beneath the office.
Anytime you need to “beep” out a president’s words is beneath the office.
And it was gasoline on the fire.
‘I’m not going to stand for it’
So much gasoline, that most teams felt the need to discuss it in meetings on Saturday, the day before their games. So much gasoline, that TV networks decided to show the anthems during national broadcasts, something they don’t usually do.
So much gasoline that the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed off the field altogether during the anthem, and owners stood arm in arm with players on various sidelines around the country and in London, and NFL owners are not generally a liberal bunch.
At Ford Field, before the Lions thriller against the Atlanta Falcons, a number of Detroit’s defensive players, as well as running back Ameer Abdullah, kneeled during the anthem. Most other players, including quarterback Matthew Stafford, hooked arms in solidarity. Eric Ebron, the tight end, stood away, by himself, near the bench.
“One of my biggest pet peeves is disrespect,” Ebron said after the game. “And I felt we were disrespected as an organization … I just felt like what came out of the mouth of our leader was disrespect, so I’m not gonna stand for it.”
Across the nation, statements were issued, quotes were given, tweets went flying. Even Stevie Wonder, the legendary Motown singer, took two knees at a concert.
And at the bottom of all of this anger and protest and debate and argument, lies one simple question:
Was any of this necessary from our president?
Back to a burning beginning
Isn’t the world challenging enough without our leader needing to comment on who should be fired for protesting during football games? Or telling fans to walk out to send a message?
Yes, we all know the Constitution protects free speech, it doesn’t protect you from being fired. Yes, we know that Trump is as entitled to say what he wishes as anybody else is.
But right now he isn’t anybody else. He’s the president. There’s one of him. He’s not a writer, a player, a fan or blogger. Common sense should stop our elected leader from invoking such dynamite in a casual setting, or using the phrase “son of a bitch” to talk about any American. I’m sorry, but there’s never a call for that. Not from the president. Particularly one who often seems to act like he’s still running for office, not running the country.
Listen to what Lions coach Jim Caldwell said after the game: “There are no SOBs in this league. These are men that work hard, of integrity, they’re involved in our communities. They’re fathers, they’re brothers and their mothers aren’t what he said they were. And our guys, just like anything else, we believe in unity, civility and also the First Amendment rights to peaceful expression and freedom of speech.”
That’s a lot more eloquent than what we heard in Alabama.
But instead of eloquence we will now have backlash. And sides digging in. And no doubt comments after columns like this one in which we sink to the lowest form of name-calling and vitriol.
But before you start typing, ask yourself if we’re better off for exacerbating this, or worse. Before last week, the NFL protests had seemingly found an equilibrium; still pockets of players doing it, but others returning to standing, the debate moving on.
Now we are back to a burning square one, and the heat comes from an unnecessary and unseemly diatribe by a leader we elected to know better, a leader who won partly because he sold voters on the idea that he was a deal maker, he got people together.
He’s got them together, all right. Owners and players alike. But more and more, he’s got them together lining up against him.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.