Protest in America does not make you unpatriotic. To suggest otherwise is a lie, no matter who says it, in sports or anyplace else. It is untrue even now, even as the President of the United States insists on protesting the protestors in the National Football League by calling them SOBs. Protest, as a symbol and statement of your beliefs and your own love of country, happens to be as American as the flag, which we always like to wave around in sports, but only when it suits us. Not only do we wave it around, we love to wrap our politics in it, much the way the current president does.
But this subject always manages to divide us, and so often it is about race. Currently the division starts with President Donald J. Trump, who reignited a debate about NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem that began at a speech in Alabama and spread all the way to a pro football game here in London on Sunday. It was at Wembley Stadium that a dozen players from the Jaguars and Ravens knelt during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Then all across the football day and night, more players knelt. Some locked arms with their owners, some of whom had supported Trump. Somehow those who locked arms were praised by Trump and those who knelt were once again condemned by him. There were even cheerleaders from the Trump administration who went on Sunday talk shows saying that the First Amendment rights of protesting players didn't extend to a playing field. Well, yeah, in a "fake news" political cartoon they don't.
Protest is never easy in this country, and always complicated. If you don't believe that, all you have to do is go back 50 years, to as famous a protest as any athlete has ever made in America, when Muhammad Ali refused to serve in the military and would not go fight in Vietnam because of his religious beliefs. He was stripped of his title and prevented from boxing for years, until his conviction for draft evasion was finally overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971.
Ali was vilified at the time and called a coward and a traitor, even though by the time of his death he had become one of the most beloved and admired athletic figures in the country, one who was honored to light the torch at the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics, at an Olympics that was one long American pep rally. And it is worth pointing out that when he did refuse to enter the draft, when he did avoid a war that the current president avoided through a series of legal deferments, he was even criticized by Jackie Robinson, perhaps the bravest and most admired American athlete of them all.
I vaguely remembered this criticism from the great Mr. Robinson at the time. So I went to YouTube on Monday morning and found this comment from him from an old black-and-white television interview:
"[Ali is] hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam. And the tragedy to me is, Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he's not willing to show his appreciation to a country that's giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity."
Ali thought his opportunity was to stand up for his beliefs. Which he did. Like a champion. And Robinson, who had endured so much by standing up for himself in 1947 as he broke the color barrier in baseball and ahead of all major sports, exercised his own -- and immense -- rights as an American by saying what he did about Ali in the late 1960s, a time in America where there was every bit as much anger and divisiveness as there is now.
So Ali refused to enter the draft, when he was the most famous athlete in this country and in the world. The next year, at the Summer Games in Mexico City, two gifted black American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the 200-meter race, famously raised black-gloved fists on the podium during their medal ceremony. It is still the most dramatic protest by American athletes in the history of the Olympics. All this time fists are still being raised now at American football stadiums, by some of the same players who kneel.
"We were concerned about the lack of black assistant coaches. About how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title. About the lack of access to good housing and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges," Smith once said.
This is what Carlos said in the UK's Telegraph in an interview last summer:
"Many of the athletes today are starting to realize that they are in a bubble. They have escaped the slums and the streets, but they still don't have their mom or their son or their daughter in the bubble with them. And if they come out of their uniforms and are riding down the street, then they are not in that bubble either.
"I think many of them are starting to understand that they have to speak for those who can't speak for themselves."
And here is what an emotional Michael Thomas said on an emotional football Sunday in 2017 after his team, the Dolphins, played the Jets. Another guy who stood up on this day after being told by his president to stand down, and not kneel down:
"As somebody in the NFL who is one of those 'sons of bitches'. Yeah I take it personally. But it's bigger than me. I've got a daughter. She's going to have to live in this world. I'm going to do whatever I've got to do."
From baseball there was the sight of Oakland A's rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell, the son of an Army veteran, kneeling during the national anthem with his hand over his heart.
"My decision has been coming for a long time," Maxwell said. "I know I was on the fence for a long time because I know no one in baseball has ever done it. I finally got to the point where I thought the inequality of man is being discussed, and it's being practiced from our president.
"The point of my kneeling is not to disrespect our military, it's not to disrespect our Constitution, it's not to disrespect this country. ... My hand over my heart symbolizes the fact that I am and I'll forever be an American citizen, and I'm more than grateful to be here. But my kneeling is what is getting the attention because I'm kneeling for the people that don't have a voice.
"And this goes beyond the black community, and this goes beyond the Hispanic community, because right now we're having an indifference and a racial divide in all types of people. It's being practiced from the highest power that we have in this country, and it's basically saying that it's OK to treat people differently. My kneeling, the way I did it, was to symbolize that I'm kneeling for a cause, but I'm in no way or form disrespecting my country or my flag."
This is how you lead in a better way. You are not required to stand beside the ones who kneel. But you ought to. If you are going to join hands with somebody, you join hands with them.