No President in recent history (certainly not in either the 20th or 21st centuries) has conducted themselves in office like Donald Trump on a host of fronts, and that includes their interaction with professional athletes. Last year Trump ignited a firestorm when he falsely claimed that players kneeling during the National Anthem were disrespecting the flag and the anthem, when it had already been announced from the very beginning by Colin Kaepernick and others that the protests were about police misconduct and other social injustice issues. NFL owners spent months trying to reach some sort of accord with players, then a couple of weeks ago passed a new rule saying all players who were on the field at the time the anthem was played had to stand at attention, but those who didn’t want to do so could remain in the locker room.
That gesture, which incidentally is also a best a gross violation of First Amendment rights to protest, wasn’t enough to satisfy Trump, who made the comment that any players who protested “shouldn’t even be in the country,” which takes idiocy as well as constitutional ignorance to a new level. Then last week he made another statement and gesture, this time asking any players who were protesting to suggest to him possible political prisoners for pardons.
While few people take this seriously, the NFLPA definitely should. In the ongoing Trump war against the NFL, which has also included him rescinding the invitation for the Super Bowl Eagles to visit the White House, he has continually played to the hardcore reactionary corps among sports and NFL fans. But the Players Association now has a chance to call that bluff. They should meet with various activist groups across the nation and submit a list of political prisoners, then make it public, and see what Trump’s reaction would be.
Thus far he has pardoned one dead man, the great boxer and first Black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson who was imprisoned on trumped up charges of violating the Mann act decades ago, and also commuted the sentence of 63-year-old Memphian Alice Marie Johnson, a great-grandmother who had been serving a life sentence for drug trafficking.
While both were good actions, they later became part of what seemed like a grandstand publicity ploy to lure Black voters after Trump reportedly told Kim Kardashian that she and husband Kanye West were helping him with Black voters. Whether that’s true or not, and thus far sample polls don’t indicate any major shift in his popularity among the African-American electorate, the NFLPA could do some major good if they did craft a list and send it to him. While it is highly doubtful that he would pardon someone like Mumia Abu-Jamal to cite just one possible example, it would at least put him on the spot to back up his actions.
The Trump bluster doesn’t just extend to the NFL. He’s also rescinded the invitation to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to visit as well, though that’s also just more hot air. Both the Warriors’ Steph Curry and the Cavaliers’ Lebron James had already given a press conference saying neither of their teams was interested in going to the White House anyway, so all that did was generate a few more stories and more agreement from the same people who already support Trump.
Perhaps the most interesting case in all this is coming up shortly with new Stanley Cup Champions the Washington Capitals. Their roster includes Devante Smith-Pelly, a seven-year veteran who scored goals in three straight Final games, including the tying goal in the finale. He’s among the handful of Black players in the NHL, but like P.J. Suban and most others isn’t an American, but a Canadian. Trump has already gone on record saying he’s expecting the Capitals. It will be intriguing to see what people expect Smith-Pelly to do when the time comes, particularly as we’re talking about the first title team in Washington D.C. since the Washington Wizards in the late ‘70s.
But the ultimate bottom line remains that both NFL and NBA players aren’t afraid to express their dislike of the current President, and he in turn is exploiting that for publicity and personal gains among his base. It’s far from a good thing though for the country as a whole.