Harry Edwards is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which led to the Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Games
With his most recent rant, calling on NFL owners to punish any player who doesn't stand for the national anthem, U.S. President Donald Trump has demonstrated that he is by far the most anti-democratic, inflammatory and unhinged personality ever to occupy the Oval Office.
He has added the NBA's Steph Curry, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and all protesting athletes to his pantheon of all-black political targets. (And, apparently their mothers – referring to peaceful protesters who decide to take a knee as "sons of bitches.") This is not only shortsighted on Mr. Trump's part – it is characteristically impulsive, precipitous and stupid.
The President's persistent and unrelenting attacks on African-Americans in sports give credibility and credence – if not validity – to the accusations that he is a white supremacist. But perhaps most damaging of all is that, in calling on NFL owners (among them adamant supporters, who include the Patriots' Robert Kraft and the Cowboys' Jerry Jones) to "fire" the protesting players and for fans to boycott their games if they don't, Mr. Trump has effectively thrown these owners under the bus in exchange for a moment of applause. Every owner, and especially the seven who supported him with both million-dollar donations and public association, is now going to have to answer the question, "Do you agree with Trump?"
If they agree with him (or have no comment – silence is evil's greatest ally), they will be aligned against the NFL commissioner, many of the players, the NFL Players Association and arguably the best interest of the game (which, believe it or not, has nothing organically or functionally to do with the national anthem). If they do not agree with the President's statements, they in effect will be separating themselves from both him and the alt-right constituency.
With his stupid statements, the President has created a lose-lose situation, even for his most loyal supporters. This has become a Trump-brand feature – he has characteristically never shown any hesitancy whatsoever to throw associates, supporters and even friends under the bus. He is as true and faithful to that utter lack of personal character, loyalty and integrity today as he has been throughout his business and political life. The NFL owners who donated millions to his campaign and publicly supported him are simply the latest to learn the hard way that, with a friend like the President, who needs adversaries and enemies?
Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell. In it, I urged him to consider that Colin Kaepernick's jersey is the highest-selling jersey in the entire NFL (a measure of public popularity that continues to this day). I urged him to consider that, if Mr. Kaepernick remained unsigned, this issue will consume the conversation this season: The focus will not be on the games, not on the star athletes, and not on the marquee matchups to the degree desired, strategically marketed or normally expected.
I told him that while some football players have continued their careers after being convicted of very serious crimes, Colin Kaepernick has committed no crime. He faces exile for exercising his constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression by taking a knee on the sidelines, in dignified, non-violent support of his message.
I have spent the past half-century organizing, analyzing and deconstructing developments at the interface of sport, politics, race and society.
After the President has engaged and inflamed this debate – I know that the league will suffer. Players will be under scrutiny, owners are in a lose-lose situation. This is not the conversation that the NFL needs, deserves or can prevail against.
Today, after many athletes took the knee, or stayed in the dressing room during the national anthem, it's all the more clear: Mr. Trump's involvement in this has only fuelled the flames. This will morph into a movement that the NFL has no hope of constructively managing, much less controlling.
I urge every NFL athlete who takes some protest action in the exercise of their First Amendment rights and in support of their peers' right to do likewise to be no less committed to moving from protest to programs as paths to progress.
In the final analysis, this "fourth wave" of athlete activism is not about protests during the anthem; it is not even about Colin Kaepernick getting his job back – any more than the Montgomery, Ala., bus-boycott movement was about getting Rosa Parks's seat on the bus back – and it is most certainly not about Mr. Trump.
It is about the issues of injustice, inequity and intolerance across communities of colour in this country. The drama of protests generates attention and provokes conversation, but the move from "protests to progress" is hard work, most of it out of the spotlight and down on the ground in the community rather than on the stadium sidelines before the cameras and before tens of thousands of fans and millions more watching on TV.
Now that we have the attention of the country and world, we must accept the consequent obligation to show that same level of commitment to the creation and support of programs that promise to generate the changes that all the protesters have been so adamantly insistent upon.