Lefties on their knees
Just when you thought political life in the United States simply could not become more polarised, it did. This time it has to do with sports, and in particular the most popular American team sport by far, the National Football League (NFL) or as we know it gridiron. North American television audiences for the NFL dwarf those of other team sports. For advertisers and TV networks this is the biggest game in town.
The ruckus has to do with players standing for the national anthem, or rather some of them refusing to do so. It all started last year when a former starting quarterback, now a reserve, opted to kneel while the American national anthem was being played at the start of a game. The player’s name was Colin Kaepernick. He was protesting against what he saw as biased police behaviour against black Americans. Put bluntly, Kaepernick was subscribing to the Black Lives Matter critique of US policing, that the police were hunting down young black men.
For most of last season few other players joined in this protest even though in the NFL the league is over 75 per cent black. Of course, the mainstream media and US sports network ESPN gave this protest huge airtime. Meanwhile, many regular NFL-watching Americans were turned off by what their saw as disrespect for the flag. Ratings were down, the issue politicised.
On the merits, there is something to be said on both sides. On one hand, there have been some recent police shootings captured on video that paint a picture of police officers (not all of them white I should say) who have been trigger-happy when dealing with black suspects. That said, in a country of some 310 million people, American police can hardly be described as brutal or racist in any statistical sense. Blacks in the US comprise twelve to thirteen per cent of the population but commit a significantly disproportionate share of murders, near half. And they commit well over 90 per cent of homicides against other black people. Put bluntly, most victims of black violence are themselves black. No one needs an effective police force more than these potential victims. As American writer Andrew McCarthy notes, in 2015 in the US 258 black people were killed by police gunfire (the number of whites killed by the police was 494) while nearly 6,000 black people were killed by other black people. Oh, and police killings of citizens are at historic lows. Police officers are almost 20 times more likely to be killed by a black male than unarmed black males are to be killed by police officers. So the Black Lives Matter characterisation of American policing falls somewhere between ‘seriously misleading’ and ‘a patent untruth’.
And that takes us back to this year’s just-begun NFL season. With ESPN and other networks having devoted sizeable airtime to these player protests – with the media’s usual implicit left-wing support for them – more and more players were beginning to join in. The real question is whether you believe that sports, and in particular professional sports, is the proper venue for airing and politicising such issues. And then only last week President Trump entered the fray, blasting the protesting players, urging them to focus on sports, and suggesting that owners might like to fire those who disrespect the American flag.
Of course in purely constitutional law terms this is not a free speech issue. The government is not involved. There is no First Amendment right to political speech in the workplace. Employers regularly limit the scope of speech they allow their employees while on the job. Don’t forget it was only recently that Google fired a man for suggesting that the dearth of women working in Silicon Valley might in part have a genetic basis – a view that merely mimics what Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley and other evolutionary psychologists have long asserted. When that happened with Google, almost no one on the left side of politics in the US complained or stood up for the man’s free-speech rights. Likewise, remember that only last year after five Dallas police officers were murdered by a sniper, the NFL refused to allow any team to wear small decals on player helmets in honour of these slain police officers.
With today’s NFL player protests, however, the political positions in the right-left divide in the US have reversed. The vast preponderance of those wanting players disrespecting the US flag to be fired are on the right, while the preponderance of those supporting the players are on the left. It seems as though it is the side that counts, not any larger principle. I mean this criticism to apply to both sides of the American political divide.
President Trump’s entry into this saga, and indeed his urging of fans to boycott teams with protesting players, has put the NFL in a terrible position. It is uncontroversial to note that far more football fans are Republicans and Trump supporters than are from the left. Meanwhile, many of the biggest supporters of the players are people who never watch football. But the preponderance of Trump-voting NFL fans agree with the President. So ratings are down and likely to go further down if the player protests continue and proliferate.
What Trump supporters like is that the President is prepared to give the identity politics crowd a taste of its own medicine. It was not the President who initially politicised sports and the NFL. A few players did that, and on pretty flimsy facts. Trump then waded in, rather than politely accepting the merits of yet another left-wing critique of things American. This President does not lie down and roll over when the bumper sticker moralising crowd sets out to politicise ever more issues in society. If they wish to turn everything into a virtue signalling test of moral worth, then Trump will ram such tactics back down the throats of those on the left. In political terms, it is hard to see how the President can lose.
I suppose what Trump supporters like most of all is that the President is prepared to fight back, a quality not in much supply with many politicians on the right side of politics in the Anglosphere today. Trump is the living embodiment of a politician who pays no attention to the Mark Textor school of politics for Righties.