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Where will the NFL protests go from here?

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As the weekend’s professional football games approach, controversy surrounding players’ protests during the national anthem continues to swirl around NFL stadiums. Before the games kick off, however, another contest is being teed up, as fans and political observers alike watch to see what the players and teams will do next. Will they demonstrate against racial inequality by taking a knee? Or stand to salute the flag?

Thursday night offered a preview of what’s ahead when the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears stood facing each other on the sidelines and linked arms with their respective teammates as the “Star-Spangled Banner” played before their game. Earlier in the week, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tipped fans to the teams’ plans, telling reporters that his teammates felt a need to demonstrate.

“This is about equality,” Rodgers said Tuesday. “This is about unity and love and growing together as a society, and starting a conversation around something that may be a little bit uncomfortable for people.”

But is that view shared across the notoriously conservative league? Will the players continue to protest, defying President Donald Trump’s unrelenting, week-long barrage of tweets attacking protesting players and owners who support them? Or will the players curtail their #TakeAKnee protest, choosing the more moderate “linked arms” demonstration of team unity?

Will the NFL community rally around an effort by four players — Malcolm Jenkins and Torrey Smith of the Philadelphia Eagles, Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, and recently retired Anquan Bolden — to make the players’ protest expand into a political movement? Earlier this week, the four sent a 10-page memo to league officials and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell calling on them to do more than offer vague expressions of unity and support criminal justice reform and other social challenges.

In an effort to gain insights into where all this is headed, I assembled a panel of African American sportswriters and analysts to discuss the impact the protest are having on the nation and what is likely to happen as a result.

Joining me in this virtual roundtable conversation are: Ty Douglas, professor of race and education studies at the University of Missouri; Latria Graham, a South Carolina-based freelance sports journalist and cultural critic; Adrienne J. Lawrence, a Los Angeles-based legal analyst; and former ESPN anchor and Roland Martin, host of TV One’s News One Now, a morning-daily show targeted to black viewers. Our conversation, which took place via email, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I launched the discussion by asking each of the panelists to assess the impact of Trump’s denunciation of the NFL players’ protest. All agreed that Trump elevated the protests, which began a year ago when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the playing of the national anthem before a preseason game. They also agreed that Trump has used the protest to burnish his standing with some white Americans.

Martin: What Donald Trump is doing is continuing to play to the racial politics of his followers. He clearly understands by attacking rich black athletes, all that does is stir up the racial resentment that exists among his fan base. He has not been able to accomplish anything legislatively so as a result he is picking a fight on an issue that he knows his followers will fully embrace.

Lawrence: Trump’s condemning the NFL players’ protest not only polarized players, teams and fans, but also detracted from the original goal of the protest. He’s made this an issue about patriotism and protesting the flag. The protest is about calling attention to racial and social injustice. Also, because people are now convinced that patriotism is the issue, Trump’s remarks seem to have created strife between fans and their teams, and between players and their organizations. Many people are taking a side on an issue that was never the issue. NFL teams and players seem to feel forced to prove their patriotism and love for our nation. The original message that Colin Kaepernick lost his job for appears lost.

“Many people are taking a side on an issue that was never the issue.”

Douglas: As problematic as Trump’s dismissive and disturbing denunciation of players’ protest has been, in many respects the true impact of his divisive leadership has been that we can no longer ignore the elephant in the proverbial living room of America. It’s an elephant that has occupied our living rooms even as we have sat and watched hours of football, with the false belief (by some) that racism and white supremacy is a thing of the past. Trump is saying publicly what many fans think and say privately, even as they cheer for black players and claim to have black and brown friends.

Graham: People are talking about it — and not just avid football people. Football is a part of pop culture now and even people that are semi acquainted with the sport (they might watch it at the bar while they’re having dinner with their family) are being forced to recon with what they thought to be true about America — whether it’s their concept of patriotism, their view on civil rights or the understanding of what athletes are expected to do in the workplace. They’re having to figure it out in person and on social media and confront those feelings with some facts.

After last Sunday’s games, Trump declared victory, saying the “locked-arms” stand is showing respect for the flag and the nation. Is that so?

Douglas: Donald Trump is not the thermometer for what is respect or respectful. He’s actually been a thermostat for disrespect to many, including members of the military like John McCain. A bigger question is who determines what is respectful? Who has the power and prerogative to do that? And ‘victory’ for whom and for what cause? Trump’s antics have muddied the waters as he seeks to co-opt the narrative.

We must not forget why the players began to kneel. They are kneeling to bring attention to injustice. They are kneeling to challenge a nation to live up to what the flag and anthem stand for in theory that has never been fully realized in practice. Kneeling during the anthem — much like kneeling to pray — can be a sign of great respect for the nation and the flag. It’s all about the lenses that we bring to the conversation and the histories and realities that we are willing to be exposed to, acknowledge, understand and act upon.

“Who determines what is respectful?”

Martin: With locked arms and team unity, Trump and his supporters were able to dismantle and sideline the protests. Even though more players are now taking a knee, he forced the owners to put the players in line. Also, he was able to get more people to turn against the players, and the media were complicit in that they totally ignored the demands of the players based on the issues, and made this about the flag, the anthem, and American nationalism.

Lawrence: The “locked-arms” stand was a compromise. Many players may not have been comfortable with kneeling during the national anthem even if they understand and support the reasons Kaepernick started the protest. But those players still want to appear unified. Unity is important for a team.

Graham: Trump and his victory statement is irrelevant. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about — something he does often. He was only the catalyst for something that was already happening — the rift in America was already there. The NFL knew there was a fire, they just didn’t know how big it was. These athletes are asking/demanding that America do better by minorities. They never said that they didn’t respect the country or respect the flag. You have to have hope in a thing, in this case America, in order to be able to ask that the country be accountable, to ask the nation and its people to raise the standards. And they are willing to sacrifice for it, even though it might mean their job.

“The NFL knew there was a fire, they just didn’t know how big it was.”

What is likely to happen next? Will the controversy tamper down or will there be more protests?

Graham:  I think the type of protest we’re going to see will be different and it won’t be relegated to the sidelines. I’ve written a little about this before and don’t want to plagiarize myself but I wonder if we’re going to see more ‘active’ symbols from players, the sort of thing that fans can’t walk away from because it comes after a play, like Seahawk Michael Bennett’s Black Power salute after sacking 49ers quarterback — which actually came before Trump’s comments. I think athletes are working on a way to make sure fans can’t look away, but also to make sure that the demonstrations get back on the message of solidarity with oppressed peoples, not team unity.

Lawrence: Given how divided the country is right now and the inadequate response to racial and social injustices, the protests likely will continue. I wouldn’t be surprised if it moves into other arenas and areas of everyday life. We just saw an MLB player take a knee last weekend. High school football players are bending the knee. People feel oppressed. They will make their voices heard.

Martin: I think what would you will see this Sunday are fewer players taking a strong stand. Many of these players are afraid. Many of them don’t want to [upset] the owners because unlike the NBA, you don’t have guaranteed contracts. That’s why what the players have to do is not just focus on taking the knee but move this issue off the field, bring in other partners to force the media and the owners to address the specific issues. There is some good that can come out of this but they have to be strategic moving forward.

So, in your opinion, what would a “good” outcome to the NFL protests and all this back-and-forth over it look like?

Graham: This is isn’t a combustion reaction type of situation — where ‘BOOM’ one thing meets the other and suddenly everything is changed. A good outcome to me would be one where America and the NFL owned up to its flaws and put in a thorough action plan to move forward. The nation need to even the playing field for all Americans, along with oversight and accountability measurements.

“A good outcome to me would be one where America and the NFL owned up to its flaws.”

Douglas: A ‘good’ outcome to all of this would be for Colin Kaepernick to no longer be blackballed by NFL teams for protesting legitimate issues. But it certainly cannot stop there. The NFL needs to mandate anti-racist training for all personnel, from owners to coaches to players to those who run concession stands. The NFL can use its platform to build bridges between police and the black communities/families that produce the black men who help make their league must-see TV.

Martin: The good outcome of this is that it shows these NFL players they are only beloved as long as they shut up and play ball. It’s also good that it shows black folks who fell for the post-racial America meme that it is B.S., and that the nation only wants us to remain quiet and stay in our place.

Lawrence: A good outcome would be meaningful social change, an improved society that ardently works to ameliorate injustice and elects compassion over indifference, a society in which all men are treated equal because they are created equal. That may be a tall order but you asked.

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