Trump Ignites New Round of Black Athlete Activism

Donald Trump’s attack on black NFL players has sparked a wave of anti-racist sports activism with a rich history, says historian and author Gerald Horne

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Story Transcript

Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. One day after dozens of NFL players took knees and locked arms in protest, the White House is still on offense against them. On Twitter, President Trump defended his comments and took aim at the players who took part. And speaking to reporters, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the protest is misplaced.

Sarah Huckabee: I think if the debate is really, for them, about police brutality, they should probably protest the officers on the field that are protecting them instead of the American flag.

Aaron Maté: It’s the first time a White House press secretary has seemingly encouraged athletes to protest police. But it’s not the first time that professional athletes have taken part in protest; that is a tradition that goes back many decades.

Joining me is Gerald Horne, author, historian, and professor of history in African-American Studies at the University of Houston. Professor Horne, welcome. Your thoughts on what we’ve seen transpire over the last few days from Trump attacking NFL to these players standing, or kneeling, in unison in response?

Gerald Horne: Well as you well know, this recent episode actually started some months ago when Colin Kaepernick, an African-American who played quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers decided to protest the playing of the National Anthem, which is customary during professional football games and indeed most professional sports because of police brutality inflicted upon African-Americans in particular. This has led to his effectively being banished from the league; this led more specifically, to Donald J. Trump, a few days ago at a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, charging that what Mr. Kaepernick was doing was somehow beyond the pale and encouraging NFL football owners, as they’re called to fire players who are engaged in protests. This was like a tossed down gauntlet to many of the players, 75% of whom are African-American which led to these rounds of protests not only in the United States, but in a game in London involving the Baltimore Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

As for Mr. Trump, it’s apparent that what he’s trying to do is to inflame his base, which is almost all white to make them resent these black American football players, who of course are not only stars but also oftentimes has six and seven figure salaries. So, this is a way to gen up race and class tensions, gen these tensions up because, as you know more than most, Mr. Trump is facing a direct challenge in terms of possibly being impeached and removed from office and he feels that he’ll need this hardcore base in order to forestall that possibility, hence this present conflict and controversy.

Aaron Maté: Right. And it also was an effective strategy to get him elected in the first place, even before he faced some legal woes, by race-baiting; starting off his campaign by targeting Mexicans. But let me ask you, talk about the position that this has put the owners in because you mentioned Kaepernick. There’s a piece on The Intercept by Shaun King, and he points out that what Trump is saying about all the NFL players is exactly what these owners have done to Kaepernick, refusing to give him a job, refusing to hire him despite having a very stellar career, because of that political stance that he took. But now, because of Trump, they’ve been forced to backtrack a little and pretend like they’re on the side of the players, on the side of free speech.

Gerald Horne: Well, it’s not only that, keep in mind that labor management relations in the National Football League are at an all-time low. There’s a distinct possibility that when they’re present contract expires, the players may go on strike which will jeopardize the fortunes of certain owners, and so Mr. Trump basically placed many of these owners in a corner. That is to say, he’s encouraging them to take a more militant stance against their players over what, in many ways, is not the core of the issue; the core of the issue is not only how much the players are paid because they’re the ones generating the revenue, but it’s also the working conditions. Recall that in that Huntsville speech, Mr. Trump totally overlooked all the evidence pointing to brain damage with regard to those who play professional football, and says he would like to see more hitting. He would like to see even more lives jeopardized on the gridiron.

And so, he has also helped to inflame this labor management conflict in professional sports and I daresay that he may not be getting Christmas cards from some of these NFL owners in a few months.

Aaron Maté: Despite the fact that many of them donated to his campaign and his inauguration. And you know, that issue you raised about brain injuries has been made all the more stark just in recent days when the family of Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end, who was convicted of murder and later killed himself in his jail cell, has come out accusing the NFL of negligence, because they say that medical testing shows that he had severe brain injuries and they’re alleging that that contributed to his troubles.

But let’s talk about other sports as well because this is not just the NFL. In recent days, you had the NBA becoming actively involved in this issue. Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, their star point guard said that he would not go to the White House after what Trump said, he was no longer invited, after which Lebron James of the Cavs, he responded and called out President Trump. And let me go to a clip of Lebron James speaking today on this topic.

LeBron James: It’s the land of the free, but we still have problems just like everybody else. And when we have those problems, we have to figure out a way how we come together and be as great as we can be as a people. Because the people run this country, not one individual and damn sure not him.

Aaron Maté: So, that’s LeBron James speaking today, and I also want to go to the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich, he also was speaking about this today, and he made some interesting comments that we don’t often hear from a sports figure about race in the US.

Gregg Popovich: People have to be made to feel uncomfortable and especially white people, because we’re comfortable. We still have no clue of what being born white means, and if you read some of the recent literature, you’ll realize it really no such thing as whiteness but we’ve kinda made it up. That’s not my original thought, but it’s true. It’s hard to sit down and decide that yes, it’s like you’re at the 50 meter mark in a 100 meter dash and you’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white.

Aaron Maté: So, that’s Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, one of the league’s most revered and celebrated coaches. Before that, Lebron James, the game’s top player for many years. Gerald Horne, your thoughts in hearing this kind of conversation come out at this moment right now from people so high in the NBA?

Gerald Horne: Well actually, I was sort of bowled over hearing what Gregg Popovich had to say. I never thought I’d hear a coach give an analysis of the literature concerning construction of whiteness, which historians like myself and many others have been working on for a number of years. That is to say that he is correct, this is an original form of identity politics, this construction of whiteness, that is to say those who were warring on the shores of Europe; English versus Irish, English versus Welsh, French versus English, German versus Pole, Russian versus German, Serb versus… All of a sudden, when they cross the Atlantic, they assume this new identity that is whiteness, which was essential to subduing the Native Americans and enslaving the Africans.

So obviously, this controversy involving athletes is bringing us closer to the truth and closer to reality in terms of getting a deeper understanding of how this country came to be, and that is all for the good. And so obviously, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Colin Kaepernick who helped to ignite this present debate and discourse.

Aaron Maté: Right. So let’s go back and actually talk about who else over history has helped ignite this debate. Many people today are recalling the famous gesture by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the ’68 Olympics, the US track stars, when they got on the Olympic podium and raised their fists in the black power salute. But I think not as well known is the fact that someone, a star professional athlete, refusing to stand for the anthem actually happened pretty recently. It happened in the 90s with the NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, formerly known as Chris Jackson, one of the league’s most gifted scorers, an incredible shooter. And after coming to the league, he changed his name to Chris Jackson to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, became a Muslim and at some point in the mid-90s, he started refusing to stand for the anthem. And I want to go to a clip from back then, where he talks about his decision.

Reporter: The NBA star refuses to stand for the playing of the National Anthem before any basketball game. He calls the American flag a symbol of oppression, of tyranny.

Mahmoud Abdul: It’s clear in the Quran where Islam is the only way. My thing is I don’t criticize those for standing, so don’t criticize me for sitting.

Aaron Maté: So that’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf speaking in 1996. Professor Horne, your thoughts on Colin Kaepernick’s predecessors, those before him who have carried this conversation to the moment it’s in today?

Gerald Horne: Well in the 20th century, of course, we begin with Jack Johnson, born in Galveston, Texas, the man who becomes heavyweight boxing champion in the early 1900s, who then is subjected to the indignity of promoters seeking to find a so-called “great white hope” to defeat him. He’s eventually convicted of trumped up charges which causes him to flee to Mexico during the Revolutionary Decade, where he aligns himself with Mexican revolutionaries and seeks to set up a base of opposition to US Jim Crow and racism in Mexico. A regime change in Mexico forces him to leave the country, he has to come back here, where he’s imprisoned. We all know, of course, about Muhammad Ali, his direct descendant who refused to go fight in Vietnam and therefore was stripped of his right to make a living. You’ve mentioned Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf who, of course, opposed the standing for the anthem and saluting the flag when he was a basketball star, for The Denver Nuggets in particular, I recall that he had also played at Louisiana State University where he also was a star performer.

So there is a long line of activism that Colin Kaepernick is now contributing to, and that obviously will continue indefinitely as long as injustice continues.

Aaron Maté: So, do you think that Kaepernick is gonna stay off the field now? I’m wondering if this protest, if these players taking action like this might’ve freed up some space for him, for a team to say, “You know what, we’re gonna give this guy the short that he deserves.”

Gerald Horne: Well, you may know that in Los Angeles in particular, which is now the sight of two professional football teams, the St. Louis Rams who’ve moved to LA and the San Diego Chargers moved to LA, there have been protests at games by activists. These activists are wondering why Colin Kaepernick has not been given a job. When you have these Brand X quarterbacks, who happen to be melanin deficient, who are making six and seven figure salaries as quarterbacks as they steadily lead their teams to defeat.

If he is hired by another team, I suspect that it may be a team like the Seattle Seahawks, who put out a very strong statement yesterday, by the way, with regard to the issues we’re now debating. And there might be a possibility that the LA teams may surrender to mass pressure and also offer Mr. Kaepernick a job. We can only hope so, and we can only continue to pressure those teams to do the right thing.

Aaron Maté: So, finally Professor Horne, speaking of mass pressure, I was thinking this: I think one day it might be interesting to do a media study to see how the coverage of Colin Kaepernick back a year ago when he was doing this protest on his own, refusing to stand for the anthem, you know, when President Obama was in office, so this was awhile ago now, and compare that to how the coverage of yesterday’s protest by all these players got. And I suspect that once all these players got together and did this in unison, it got probably a lot better coverage and sympathetic coverage, even in the liberal media, because it’s just easy to demonize one person. When people stand together though, it’s hard to ignore.

Gerald Horne: Well, I think there’s something to that, but keep in mind as well that there’s a certain kind of opposition in the New York Times and the Washington Post and CNN and MSNBC to the current occupant of the Oval Office. And given his inflammatory remarks and given the fact that he’s consciously and intentionally inflaming race tensions and class tensions too, I might add, that there are members of the US ruling elite who have had enough of Mr. Trump, and I think that that might also help to account for the sympathetic attention.

And then of course there’s the global angle. The protests began actually in London with a game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens. I think that that is a factor as well, not to mention the fact that certain billionaire owners have also joined the protests, even though as you suggested, many of them made substantial donations to Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

So if you add all of those factors together, I think that helps to explain not only the press coverage, but also why we’re debating this issue right now.

Aaron Maté: Gerald Horne, author, historian, professor of history in African-American Studies at the University of Houston. Thank you.

Gerald Horne: Thank you.

Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.