President Trump has spent much of the last week responding to the plethora of sports players that have taken a knee to the national anthem. The increase in anthem protests comes after Donald Trump referred to Colin Kaepernick as a “son of a b****” at a political rally in Alabama on September 22nd. That weekend, hundreds of NFL players took a knee or locked arms during the recital of the anthem. NBA player Lebron James weighed in as well. Yet much of the commentary surrounding the new wave of protests has ignored Kaepernick’s original message.
This is not to say that Trump’s comments should not be opposed. His rabidly racist attack against Kaepernick and his supporters raises to the surface the vilest form of US exceptionalist mythology. To call for punitive measures against anyone who refuses to worship the US flag sends a stark message that the US system of rule will not be challenged without consequences. The corporate media, the NFL corporation, and the anti-Trump opposition in the US has responded by framing the anthem protests as a struggle against Trump’s racist character. Kaepernick’s broader anti-imperialist message has been all but drowned out of the political discourse.
The political discourse on the anthem protests currently has two narratives. Some players, like the Seattle Seahawks, have cited racial injustice as the reason for not standing for the flag. The more dominant narrative, however, has focused on the “division” that Trump has sewn with his comments. This has emanated mostly from the likes of the NFL’s corporate ownership and its favorite player-spokespeople. On the day of the protests, veteran linebacker Vernon Davis stated that he loved the flag but wouldn’t stand for a leader of the United States who attacked the right to protest. To add further to the variation, some players took a knee with a hand over their heart, others locked arms, while still others didn’t show up to the field at all.
NFL owners have overwhelmingly made the anthem protests about the question of “unity.” According to the NFL profiteers, football brings the US together. NBA icons Lebron James echoed these sentiments. James called Trump a “bum” and repeated the mantra that he would not let the President “divide us through sports.” While Trump’s racist comments have the potential to strengthen the reach of Kaepernick’s political message, the politics of respectability and color-blindness inherent in James’ response does little more than attack Kaepernick from a different vantage point.
Kaepernick never mentioned Donald Trump when he decided to protest the national anthem over a year ago. Not only was Obama president at the time, but Kaepernick also made his intentions perfectly clear from day one. Kaepernick protested the anthem because he no longer would “show pride for a flag in a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” He made this statement on August of 2016. While Kaepernick has never directly condemned imperialism, his actions reflect an anti-imperialist worldview that has brought the weight of the corporate NFL establishment down upon him.
The young Black quarterback’s protest of the anthem has exposed how the US flag is the nation’s greatest symbol of racial oppression and imperialist war. Trump’s words provide the most animated proof, but the flag didn’t start with him. The Star Spangled Banner so revered by corporate sports leagues in the US was written by an avowed imperialist. His third verse directly cites the defense of slavery as one of the primary reasons that the US found itself at war with the British in 1812. Not only does the US flag represent the white supremacist, settler colonial policy of enslavement, land theft, and genocide, but it also represents a celebration of the US expansionism necessary to fulfill the never ending quest of the ruling class to accumulate profit.
The US flag has become synonymous with the military. US military forces salute the flag, and every major speech made by the last several administrations has used the flag to commemorate those who “serve” abroad. It should come as no surprise, then, that the NFL has criminalized Kapernick’s refusal to take part in the anthem. NFL rules did not require players to be present for the Star Spangled Banner prior to 2009. Two years later, the Department of Defense gave corporate sports teams in all major leagues 53 million USD between 2011-2015 to promote patriotic spectacles in and around the Star Spangled banner performance. Corporate sports in the US thus serve as convenient venues for the promotion of imperialist war through the Pentagon’s public relations department.
Kaepernick’s protest presented a threat to the imperialist system as a whole. Political protest against has been punished before. NBA player Mohammad Abdul Rauf was gradually expelled from the league in the 1990s for sitting out the Star Spangled banner in opposition to racism. Kaepernick angered the ruling class for standing up for Black America’s right to life against the murderous forces of the domestic occupation army in the Black community, the police. He also angered the ruling class for making the target of his protest the most important symbol of US empire’s unquestioned hegemony in the world, the US flag. Trump’s comments and the subsequent protests to them must be placed in this context.
The struggle occurring over the anthem protests is not a new one. Bourgeois, corporate forces are attempting to make the protests about “dumping Trump” rather than about dumping the racist, imperialist system that produced him and all prior Presidential administrations. The ruling class won’t let anything get in its way of making a profit from its sports leagues, especially during a prolonged period of economic crisis. The mixed messages from the NFL and NBA players who have commented should not surprise anyone, either. A wave of resistance to police brutality and racism has spurred some athletes to take courageous actions while others have repeated the line of their paymasters.
The onus is on us. Let’s not forget about the significance of Kaepernick’s actions. Let’s not allow the bourgeois, corporate forces inside and outside of the NFL water down the protests and turn them into a struggle for “unity” with the so-called values of “US democracy.” US democracy is worse than a lie. A lie is abstract, but the consequences of US “democracy” are material to Black Americans who are gunned down in the streets by the police or oppressed people abroad who are gunned down by the US military’s diverse stock of weapons to mass destruction. US “democracy” is a scourge to the earth and exceptional to no one except the few who profit from it. This should not be forgotten as Kaepernick’s protest faces further attack from all sides of the ruling class.