Sometimes sport makes you proud. We're not talking about the All Blacks winning the Rugby World Cup kind of proud (although…that too) but the sight, all round the world, of protestors taking a knee to condemn the death of George Floyd.
That simple, silent and dignified protest was made famous – global – by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick; maybe it will have more sway than anything else, even the Covid-19 virus, in the death of the political career of Donald Trump.
Kaepernick first "took a knee" in 2016, a year of several shootings of unarmed black men. It was barely noticed at the time though he told a reporter after the game: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour…there are bodies in the street and people...and getting away with murder."
Kaepernick acknowledged his actions could have consequences, "if they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right".
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In fact, his protest might have passed without much comment had the President not thrown his weight around – and there is no secret about Trump's tactics or his rat cunning. Instead of addressing the issue – black deaths at the hands of police – Trump made it all about the national anthem and "respect for America", taking aim at Kaepernick and other NFL knee-benders.
The controversy had largely burned out – though not until Trump had done what he does best: incitement. His pro-America tweets ignited rednecks who burned their Nike shoes on social media, outraged about the knee-bending and Nike's championing of Kaepernick. Racial prejudice and profiling leading to death by police was difficult to address…so let's burn sneakers instead.
US stats show that black males aged 15-34 are 9-16 times more likely to be shot by police than other people – but it might all have gone away, along with Kaepernick's career, had it not been for the Floyd death. Now you see many – protestors at rallies, footballers in the UK, All Blacks – either taking a knee or joining the protest against Floyd's death and the targeting of blacks in the US, made even more relevant by Floyd's death by police knee.
Kaepernick's prophecy came true. He was out of a job after quitting the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 to become a free agent, leaving behind a US$14m salary. Most thought he would be hired by another NFL franchise but, after he became the subject of Trump's odium, that didn't happen.
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He took legal action against the NFL, alleging collusion among clubs for the way he was unable to secure a position anywhere when 50 other quarterbacks did, many of them less well-performed than Kaepernick. It was settled out of court; the details have never surfaced.
A former NFL spokesperson (and former press secretary for former President Bill Clinton, Joe Lockhart) has now written a piece for CNN, saying that the NFL owners' decision not to hire Kaepernick was financially-based – fearing a backlash from patriotic fans and losing season ticketholders.
So we had a President divisively turning a social and racial issue into a disrespecting-the-flag-and-our-military election tactic and the establishment running scared, the NFL happy to sacrifice Kaepernick and ensure their players stood for the national anthem.
Did I say sport makes you proud sometimes? Let's amend that – sportspeople make you proud sometimes. In the UK, some of the protesting Premier League footballers are people who, when they play in Europe (and occasionally at home) still have banana skins and monkey noises thrown at them.
Sportspeople seem to carry more sway than, for example, movie stars or other entertainers in these circumstances. That's because sport is closer to the man and woman in the street, more accessible; there is less of a feeling with athletes that they are Ellen de Generes-type superstars descending from their castles to show commonality with the peasantry.
In the US, Trump has talked of shooting the looters – more sidetracking and changing of the narrative. Sure, the looters are nasty opportunists but the real issue can be heard within Martin Luther King's old quote: "A riot is the voice of the unheard".
Five months until the November elections is a long time in politics, particularly in the US, and Trump could yet prevail if he keeps playing the patriotic, religious and law-and-order cards consistently. If not, the Floyd protests will have played a part in ending his time as President and sport will have played a part within that.
No one is saying race relations in New Zealand, nor police behaviour, is perfect but it was good to see such large turnouts to Floyd protests here – and good to see police wisdom and restraint in not intervening, even though social distancing and contact tracing went AWOL.
We can be glad we live in New Zealand, folks, though every time I flag such sentiments, I receive hate mail telling me racism is alive and well here. There can be no argument about that but the mosque shootings, the pandemic and now Floyd do seem to have drawn us closer together.
In the context of good things coming from bad, that can't be a bad thing.