When historians look back at the sports scene during the first two years of the Trump era, one -aspect will stand out: the politicization of the games in light of the President’s consistent dressing down of African American athletes, most notably National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the “Star Spangled -Banner.”
Historians will also tell you that sports have always had a checkered career in America’s history, most of it on the debit side of the ledger.
• For decades, the NFL not only denied that its employees would suffer brain damage from hard hits, but also attempted to destroy the reputation and career of a leading researcher in brain trauma.
• It wasn’t until the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a Minor League contract, in 1945, that the color line was broken by a Major League Baseball team.
• The United States Olympic Committee and its affiliates have a sorry history of ignoring sexual abuse of young athletes until it becomes public knowledge. The U.S.O.C. has also willingly participated in the Olympics games in the dictatorial countries of Russia, China and Yugoslavia.
Historians will also recognize that the mogul-owned sports franchises — and the high-salaried employees who ran sports-affiliated organizations — did little to correct their ethical stance until they became -public.
While the sexual abuse scandals involving young gymnasts have been continuing news stories, it’s the manufactured flag controversy fostered by the White House that has caused the greatest uproar among the American public, at least according to some 2017 polls.
To hear the President and his right-wing radio and TV programmers speak about Kaepernick, a visitor from another planet would think the quarterback committed treason, instead of simply expressing his rights as an American citizen.
However, it appears that most Americans, unlike those in recent polling, now disagree with Trump that protesting during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” is unpatriotic. “National Football League players who kneel in protest during the National Anthem are not unpatriotic,” said 58 percent of American in a Quinnipiac University national poll released in June.
In reality, Keapernick is the latest athlete to have played a large part in awakening many Americans — who rely mainly on sports pages and right wing programming for what they consider important news — to the injustices in sports and in our society. And Kaepernick’s kneeling is only the latest example of protests by African American athletes against police brutality against their brethren.
• In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB when he was promoted to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Years later, he admitted that he didn’t sing the national anthem.
• In 1968, American track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in what they said was a protest against racism and injustice on the medal stand of the Olympics in Mexico City. They were banned from Olympic participation and vilified by newspaper columnist Brent Musburger, who called them “black-skinned storm troopers.” Today, the two track stars are considered civil rights heroes.
• In 1969, St. Louis Cardinals’ all-star centerfielder Curt Flood initiated the path that now gives baseball players free agency, instead of being forced to play for one team indefinitely.
• But perhaps, it was Cassius Clay, who in 1964 provided the loudest black athlete voice against racial injustice by changing his name to Muhammad Ali, saying his former name was his “slave name.”
There undoubtedly are other athletes — both black and white — who deserve to be on this list. But the above are probably the ones who had the greatest effect of giving African American athletes a public voice that was heard by all.
Not surprisingly, Hispanic athletes, certainly a target of racists, have kept quiet about racism in the U.S. Understandable, because many aren’t American citizens and might be fearful of having visa problems preventing them to come to America and ply their trade.
But what is surprising is the lukewarm support for Kaepernick and racial justice by white athletes, especially NFL players, many of whom owe their team’s success to their black teammates.
A most notable exception is Chris Long, a standout defensive end for several teams, when he became the most prominent white player to support Keapernick, saying he -respects the former quarterback. And bucking the culture associated with -NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted in part, “All Americans R granted rights 2 Peaceful protests,” part of a John F. Kennedy quote.
Sports history shows that black athletes who have been shunned for demonstrating against racial injustice become symbols for freedom years after their actions. Despite the racist taunts of a racist President, Kaepernick will eventually join their ranks because while it takes way too long, Americans eventually — sometimes — do the right thing.
In addition to the politicization of sports, there were two other important developments during the Trump era that will change the way the sports scene is viewed by a large segment of the entire U.S. population. After decades of saying that gambling and Las Vegas are a no-no for the NFL, the league authorized the Oakland Raiders to relocate to the city, and some NFL owners are now backers of online gambling sites, highlighting the hypocrisy of the league. But on a long-term basis, falling or mediocre TV ratings of sporting events, especially by youngsters, might be the most alarming happening to team owners, networks and sports marketing sponsors.
Athletes protesting police brutality, and others who aren’t fearful of standing up to the actions of a President who attacks democratic allies while praising totalitarian leaders, might be viewed by historians as the finest developments in an otherwise appalling sports scene during the initial two years of the Trump era.
Not even the whitewashing commentary of Trump’s repressive actions by Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Jeanine Piro and other far-right conservative commentators, who risk poisoning American democracy, can erase the stain on our freedoms by the President they protect.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP at Burson-Marsteller. He now is a contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on PR projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at [email protected].