Ever since Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest against American racism began, there has been tension between players and ownership in the NFL. With ownership fearing blowback from protests during the anthem, the NFL seemed divided. Few athletes protested during the anthem, and often endured boos from their fans for their actions. Owners have not signed Kaepernick to a contract due to his protests, and many (including Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers) believe Kaepernick would be on a team right now had he not protested.
After Trump attacked black players that kneel, and disinvited the Golden State Warriors from visiting the White House, NFL players and owners united to protest Trump. Images of owners linking arms or kneeling in solidarity with their teams flooded the news. With all this coverage of unity, the initial motivations for the protest are lost, and the presented unity masks a divide in motivation.
Many of the statements released by NFL teams are critical of the President for his “divisive” or “offensive” statements, and emphasize that players are free to express themselves. But this is the same league that has collectively decided that Colin Kaepernick should be denied a job for protesting during the national anthem. Owners only took a stand when Trump told them how to do their jobs.
Many of the owners that have protested supported Trump and donated to his campaign. This perceived unity between owners and players is not about Trump being “offensive” or “divisive”. It is about the owners, who are predominantly wealthy white men, pushing back against being told what to do. These men did not kneel when Trump called for a Muslim ban, but only once they themselves became the target.
Furthermore, while some of the statements released by NFL teams have cited social injustice for their protests, only once the NFL itself was attacked did most athletes and owners decide to protest. Now, even players who supported Trump are speaking out against him, and many who refused to kneel when Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown were killed now kneel not to protest injustice, but because Trump attacked the NFL.
Despite many athletes waiting until Trump attacked the NFL to protest, other black athletes have used their platform to criticize the President. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, stated in September that by not visiting the White House, he hoped to inspire “some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country,” after which Trump promptly uninvited the Warriors from the White House.
Despite the different motivations for protesting Trump, the widespread protest in the NFL and outrage in the NBA contrasts with the non-reaction from the NHL. The Stanley Cup Championship team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, released a statement shortly after the Golden State Warriors were uninvited from the White House announcing that they would accept Trump’s invitation following “the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House.” The NHL, in contrast to the NFL and NBA, is dominated by white athletes; 93% of its athletes identify as white. It is no coincidence that while the athletes of the NFL have spoken out against Trump, even if only to defend the NFL, the NHL has stayed away from the controversy.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is representative of the NHL’s attitude towards Trump. While NBA stars refuse to visit the White House in order to draw attention to the President’s inadequate response to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Crosby, who is perhaps the NHL’s biggest star, called it an “honor” to be invited by the President. While some black athletes are protesting racial issues faced by black Americans, and some NFL athletes and owners are protesting attacks on the NFL, the NHL, a predominately white organization, chooses to support the President. Although many demand politics be left out of sports, the actions against Trump by sports organizations where athletes are predominantly black, the differing motivations for protesting Trump between owners and athletes, and the inaction of the NHL whose athletes are predominately white demonstrate that politics and race are an inherent quality of sports.
by Justin Chen