Regardless of political leanings, cultural background, religious beliefs or even one’s rooting interest, football offers fans a chance to bond over a simple yet glorious purpose: to see your team win.
But even that’s becoming a challenge in today’s increasingly polarized world.
President Donald Trump’s commentary about NFL players who protest the national anthem before games has only added to an already highly charged issue. Using grating language, he said teams should remove from the field any player who sits for the national anthem like Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett or raises a fist like Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, both of whom are black.
Or puts a hand on Jenkins’ shoulder, like Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who is white. Or puts a hand on Bennett’s shoulder, like Seahawks center Justin Britt, who also is white.
If Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie were to take Trump at his word, Jenkins and Long would be fired after Sunday’s Giants-Eagles game if their behavior doesn’t change. The same fate would befall Bennett and Britt after Seattle’s game in Tennessee on Sunday.
This will not happen, of course. In fact, Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch tweeted: “Comments like we heard last night from the president are inappropriate, offensive and divisive. We are proud of our players, the vast majority of whom use their NFL platform to make a positive difference in our society.”
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and 49ers owner Jed York also pushed back forcefully against Trump’s rhetoric.
Lurie has voiced support for Jenkins, who has gone further than raising a fist during the anthem by becoming involved in community issues and trying to bridge differences with police in Philadelphia.
Many other owners surely are uncomfortable with the protests, just as many fans are uncomfortable, especially if they see the protests as an insult to the military — even if the players themselves have drawn a clear distinction and insist they are protesting racial injustice.
Judging from the angry reaction to Trump’s message among several players who have not protested the anthem, there could be even more demonstrations preceding Sunday’s games. That certainly will inflame the passions of many fans who don’t approve of the protests and create an even more divisive dialogue about the issue as a result.
The president appealed directly to fans, suggesting that they leave the game to voice their disapproval toward any player who protests the anthem.
“When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they are playing our great national anthem,” Trump said. “The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore anyway.”
Trump went on to suggest that the league has become too soft, that the NFL’s efforts to address player safety and its attempts to reduce head trauma by making significant rules changes have made the game unwatchable. “Today if you hit too hard: Fifteen yards [for a penalty]. Throw him out of the game,” said Trump, who once owned the USFL’s New Jersey Generals and tried unsuccessfully to purchase the Buffalo Bills. “That’s what [the players] want to do. They want to hit. It is hurting the game.”
Trump was rebuked by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith. Neither man named Trump in statements released Saturday morning, but the responses were clearly aimed at the president.
Goodell said “divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.” And Smith said the union “will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens, as well as their safety as men who compete in a game that exposes them to great risks.”
The games still will go on, and the fans still will come together to cheer on their favorite teams. They will put aside their differences and gather with the common purpose of urging the Jets, Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, Broncos — or whatever team you call your own — to win a football game.
But in a world where there are so very few things we can all agree on, even football isn’t immune to the rancor and divisiveness impacting society at large.
And that’s a shame.