(CNN) — President Donald Trump ignited a war of words with the nation’s African-American athletes this weekend, yet again putting himself squarely in the middle of a racially charged debate.
At a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, Trump called on National Football League owners to dismiss players who choose to kneel in protest during the national anthem and needled the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, one of the country’s most popular athletes. Trump’s comments elicited sharp rebukes from the NFL’s commissioner and a number of well-known athletes, and a Major League Baseball player knelt during the national anthem for the first time.
Trump could have acknowledged the deep challenges African Americans face — Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, chose to take a knee during the anthem last season to spotlight police violence against African Americans. Or Trump could have avoided this issue entirely and focused his energy on his teetering health care bill or the Alabama Senate race.
Instead, the President blasted the athletes’ actions and missed the meaning behind them.
“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” Trump tweeted Saturday afternoon. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
Trump’s Saturday tweet doubles down on the message he delivered Friday during a political speech in Alabama in which he called on NFL owners to release players who kneel during the national anthem.
At a rally for Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, who is facing Republican Roy Moore in a runoff, Trump said: “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!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
Trump’s words suggest that athletes of color should stick to the game and leave their political views, and perhaps even their humanity, on the sidelines. But the fact of the matter is that the sporting institutions that have been revered by Americans for so many years have always been infused with politics.
And the President’s words fail to take into account why players like Kaepernick and others choose not to stand during the national anthem.
In Colin Kaepernick’s America, simply walking down the street while black can be a liability that costs you your life. It is an America where scores of demonstrators, most recently in St. Louis, Missouri, have taken to the streets to protest the killings of black men by white police officers — and in many cases, acquittals of the officers in question.
Kaepernick began kneeling ahead of the 2016 season, telling NFL Media that “there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said.
The comments have divided the athletic community as well as fans. The President faced sharp rebukes from the NFL commissioner, the union that represents players and a number of high-profile athletes.
Martellus Bennett of the Green Bay Packers tweeted that he was OK being fired for protesting the anthem and suggested that racial animus was at the root.
“I’m ok for being fired for what I believe in,” Bennett tweeted. “The idea of @realDonaldTrump thinking that suggesting firing me from football, confirms that he thinks that it’s all I can do as a Black man”
And the singing of the national anthem ahead of the meeting between the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars in London’s Wembley Stadium on Sunday morning saw multiple players of both teams taking a knee on the sidelines.
Others, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, signaled that they agreed with Trump that players should not protest.
“The owners should meet and they should decide on this rule the way they decide on any other rule,” Mnuchin said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Again, you know, for as long as I can remember people have stood in honor of the country. This isn’t about politics. If people want to talk politics off the field, when they’re not working for the NFL, they have the absolute right to do that.”
Words matter, and Trump’s tell you a lot about how he sees America.
In his America, athletes that voice opinions he disagrees with should lose their jobs for speaking out. He used the term “son of a bitch” to describe them as he said they should be removed from the field.
It was just a few weeks ago that the President defended some white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people” after racially charged clashes left one woman dead.
In the wake of the Virginia clashes, Trump said you don’t make direct statements “unless you know the facts.”
In the case of condemning the protests by athletes, he seems to have entirely ignored them.