ACT II: Where did it all start?
Let’s take it from the top, so we can all be well-informed on this debate.
The decision to take a knee during the national anthem was taken a full year ago by Colin Kaepernick when he was quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. It was done in the aftermath of several fatal shootings of black citizens by police officers, which went unpunished.
When asked why he did it, Kaepernick told NFL Media at the time: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
The 49ers at the time defended his right to do say, issuing a statement saying: "The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem."
Kaepernick’s protests continued, and at year’s end he was out of a job. With Kaepernick on the sidelines (in the eyes of some, blackballed from the NFL due to his outspoken behavior), there was not a huge focus on anthem protests this season in the NFL.
ACT III: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field’
Fast forward to this week, when for the umpteenth time since being elected, the president had an outburst and turned it into the issue of the weekend when he said to raucous applause at a Friday rally in Alabama: “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!’,” the last few words spoken in a strange cartoon villain voice that makes we wonder if a skin-changing Andy Kaufman is pulling a prank and somehow got elected president.
First, let me state the obvious and say that this is the President of the United States. Can you imagine Presidents Obama, Bush (either one) or Clinton even thinking of talking that way? I’m guessing not. Puerto Rico is destroyed, we’re on the brink of war with North Korea, there’s a host of important matters Congress needs to deal with, and he’s worried about athletes expressing their First Amendment rights on the field, to the point where he’s calling them “son of a bitch”. Think about that for a second and let it settle in.
Ironically, by trying to talk tough and pump up his base Friday, Trump only emboldened the protesters and drew them new allies.
NFL team owners, including $1 million Trump donor Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, got on the field this week and either took a knee or locked arms with players in solidarity; something that never
would have happened if Trump hadn’t fanned the flames in the quest for more applause.
By making these attacks against an entire group of athletes, even those unhappy with Kaepernick’s protests (like Jones) drew together with their teammates and formed alliances against Trump’s would-be insertion into league policy.
ACT IV: NASCAR steps in it
I knew it was coming. When a controversy hits the sports world, all sports must address it.
And this was a particularly tricky topic. NASCAR is probably the most patriotic sport there is, outside of the Olympic games, and many fans lean conservative. There are U.S. flags everywhere you look (and sadly, still some Confederate ones too, but that’s another topic).
And then I saw the first headline, and I knew we were in for a rough weekend: “NASCAR owners say they wouldn’t tolerate national anthem protests at races”.
Oh boy, who stepped in it this time?
First up to bat, The King himself, Richard Petty.
Petty said that he would fire anyone on his team who protested, and even went further than that, talking deportation: “Anybody that don’t stand up for the anthem ought to be out of the country. Period. What got ’em where they’re at? The United States.”
I love Richard Petty and what he has done for the sport, but he -- like Trump -- clearly does not understand what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights represent. The First Amendment is not there just to support your views; it’s there to support the views of everyone, even those you vehemently disagree with. That’s the whole point of it.
It’s why both far-right and far-left protests (and everything in between) are allowed unless they turn violent. The fact that Petty would talk about removing people from the country for expressing their beliefs is quite ironic, whether he recognizes that or not. His comment on deportation sounds like something you would hear in North Korea, or old Soviet Russia.
(Side note: After Petty’s comments, the majority owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, Andy Murstein, indicated that an employee would not be fired for such a protest, but he would talk to them about how it’s the wrong thing to do, saying: “I wouldn’t fire someone for expressing their feelings”)
Next up to bat, another fan favorite: Richard Childress, who said that if anyone on his team were to protest, “It’ll get you a ride on a Greyhound bus,” and went on to say that “anybody that works for me should respect the country we live in. So many people gave their lives for it. This is America.
For the record, I fully agree with Childress and Petty that this is a great country that we should be proud of, and that it does offer tremendous opportunity.
But I’m also realistic and recognize the United States is not a perfect place. Far from it, in fact. There’s plenty we could do better, and many of those problem areas involve treatment of minorities. The statistics don’t lie.
It’s very convenient to target these protesting players as “anti-flag” or “anti-American” or “anti-military,” but that’s hogwash. Kaepernick began his protest because of concern over police treatment of black people in America. He’s a good man who cares about this country and the people in it. Even without an active job in the league, he continues to be honored for his hefty contributions to dozens of charities and is an example of what this country is all about -- the right to express your views despite the fact many people will not agree with you or even be downright offended.
Looking at everyone who has joined in the protest since Trump’s Friday comments -- from Stevie Wonder to a 97-year-old veteran -- it’s clear there is a recognition the protest is valid nearly across the board (expect for some folks in the NASCAR world)
Of course, Trump loved the comments by Petty and Childress. On Monday the president lauded NASCAR on Twitter, saying: “So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!” (Which brings up a good rhetorical question: Do you really want this president saying he’s proud of you?)
Others in the sports world were less happy with Petty and Childress, including San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who said:
“I just heard a comment this morning from a NASCAR owner and from Mr. Petty that just blew me away. Blew me away. Where the owner described the fact that he would get the Greyhound bus tickets for anybody to leave and they’d be fired and Mr. Petty who said people who act the way we saw on Sunday they should leave the country. That’s where I live. I had no idea that I lived in a country where people would actually say that sort of thing,” Popovich said. “I’m not totally naive but I think these people have been enabled by an example that we’ve all been given. And we’ve seen it in Charlottesville and on and on and on. That’s not a surprise.”
That’s the danger of comments like Petty and Childress made: They will make their way into the general sports world, and NASCAR’s reputation as an outlier sport that isn’t fighting against racism will continue to grow, which is not something the France family wants (a France family which, ironically, endorsed Trump in 2016).
ACT V: Dale Jr. speaks out
Having seen a healthy debate on the issue on Twitter over the weekend, I knew some in the NASCAR community had to support the rights of the protesters. And I was right, though I didn’t expect it to be the biggest name in the sport.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., at age 42, grew up in a different time than Childress (his dad’s longtime car owner and friend) and Petty. He is more understanding of the issues protesters are addressing. So in a way it’s no surprise that he tweeted out Monday morning: “All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests; Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable-JFK”
Let me just say that it was a bold move for Dale Jr. to do this, and I respect him greatly for it. Many of his fans will not like that he supports the rights of the protesters and will try to twist the quote into saying he supports violence, but he’s absolutely right. These protests are as peaceful as can be, they make people think about the issue, and nobody is getting hurt -- except the egos of some people who get offended when they see it. If you can’t do a silent, peaceful protest, what kind of protest do they think should be allowed?
I like this new Dale Jr., who is about to retire, has a new job lined up for next year and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. I look forward to the perspective he will bring to the sport as a broadcaster, and this tweet is an example of how he’s not going to toe the line just because he wants to avoid controversy.
ACT VI: NASCAR says … not much
So what did NASCAR say about all this? Nothing until Monday afternoon. And when it did, it didn’t say much.
The statement reads: “Sports are a unifying influence in our society, bringing people of differing backgrounds and beliefs together. Our respect for the national anthem has always been a hallmark of our pre-race events. Thanks to the sacrifices of many, we live in a country of unparalleled freedoms and countless liberties, including the right to peacefully express one’s opinion.”
It walks the line between not attacking the protesters while at the same time reaffirming patriotism of the sport. I read it as, “you have the right to do it, but we really don’t want it around here.”
I recognize the tough spot NASCAR faces, but let’s be honest: This is an issue where you really do have to take a side. Either you are for free speech, or you are for a U.S. president telling teams when they should fire people. To me, that’s an easy choice -- as free speech is the most important thing in this country and what separates us from places around the world with less freedom. A more forceful statement against the president’s words would have sent a better message that NASCAR supports the freedom of its teams and drivers.
ACT VII: So what did we learn?
As new issues arise (and, oh yeah, there is a playoff going on in our sport that we should be talking about), this topic of the anthem protests will fade from the headlines (at least in regard to NASCAR), as it should.
No, I do not expect anyone in NASCAR to protest during the anthem in the coming weeks. If it happens, it happens, but I’m pretty confident we’ll make it to Homestead without any controversy in that regard.
But what I’ve learned from this weekend and the comments from the team owners is that this sport still has a long way to go in terms of understanding that the world is not perfect. Dale Earnhardt Jr’s eloquent response is an ideal that is no doubt shared by many of his competitors, whether they will admit it publicly or not, and as the older generation goes away from the sport in the coming years I anticipate the feelings about these social issues will more accurately reflect the way that the country feels, and NASCAR will be seen as less of an outlier.
It’s critical that it does happen, because as NASCAR tries to grow itself, it can’t give off the vibe that it’s stuck in the past and not aware of the way the world works today. That’s a one-way ticket to irrelevancy, and this weekend was a testament to how just a few comments can go a long way to making the entire country see the sport in a negative light, which is something nobody wants -- regardless of how you view the anthem controversy.