Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen’s Sept. 25 column was full of fury and righteous indignation, with his strongest rhetorical thunder aimed at athletes who dared to kneel before the previous week’s National Football League games.
Under the headline, “Disrespecting the flag is a disgraceful way to protest Trump,” Thiessen wrote: “What these players don’t seem to understand is that Americans gave their lives so that they could have the freedom to play a kids’ game for a living. When players disrespect the flag, they disrespect that sacrifice.”
“If NFL players want to protest the president, they have plenty of other ways,” he continued. “Attend a rally. Speak out on Twitter. Tell the media after the game, ‘I stood up for America but I stand against Donald Trump.’ But don’t show contempt for the flag.”
The operating theory behind Thiessen’s invective is that the players’ protest was entirely about making a statement against staples of Americana, namely the flag and the national anthem.
And as Trump pushed that storyline to a fare-thee-well in a profane speech at an Alabama rally, in tweets and extemporaneous statements since, Thiessen—and a large chunk of the media, for that matter—have been only too willing to comply with that rather convenient narrative.
Trump’s bromides against the NFL and the players have found predictable safe harbor in right-wing media, but even some left-leaning publications have cast the protests as part of something larger, as a statement against the president or The Star-Spangled Banner or Old Glory.
There’s just one slight problem with Thiessen and everyone else who has made the linkage that the NFL player protests are an attack on Americana:
It’s not true.
As MSNBC anchor Brian Williams quipped near the end of his Sept. 26 broadcast, the American media tends, at times, to be distracted by “shiny objects.”
That’s clearly the case in the coverage of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, an action whose genesis comes as an outgrowth of the decision of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to sit during preseason games a year ago.
Leave it to Fox News anchor Shepard Smith to stumble on what has been correctly called the real reason for the protests.
“They [the players] are upset about racial injustice in the country and they’re upset about what the president has said,” Smith said in a recent broadcast.
While a handful of reporters have noted that Kaepernick remains unsigned as of this writing, few—and hardly any outside of sports—have zeroed in on why Kaepernick began protesting and if there is a correlation between his protests and his unemployment.
That dearth of reporting and analysis opened the door for the vapid coverage of NFL players, coaches and owners kneeling and linking arms and the insipid connection to Trump, the flag and the anthem.
Genesis: Kaepernick’s protest against police abuse
In keeping with the media’s blissful, bordering-on-willful ignorance of Kaepernick’s boycott, the quarterback had taken a seat for two full weeks before Steve Wyche, who covers the NFL for the league-owned and operated television channel and website, asked him about it.
Kaepernick gave his first comments on the subject to Wyche after an Aug. 26, 2016, game at the 49ers’ home stadium.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Wyche, a former Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports writer, told the Undefeated, that, while he had been monitoring Kaepernick’s social media posts for some time, he was tipped to Kaepernick’s sitting by a colleague.
Wyche, who like Kaepernick is Black, noticed that Kaepernick had commented on a number of cases where unarmed Black men had died while either in police custody or in contact with police officers.
With that information as background, Wyche said he alerted his editors about the potential for a big story, obtained credentials for the 49ers game and contacted the team to arrange to speak postgame to the quarterback as well as obtain the team’s reaction.
No one mentioned or asked about Kaepernick’s sitting at a postgame press conference that night. Wyche then met with Kaepernick for 15 minutes, asking him why he was sitting and if he understood the potential ramifications for taking that action.
“It’s funny because I go back and I hear things people say and I go back and I re-read the story,” said Wyche to The Sports Fan Journal. “So many people are missing what he actually said in that initial story because they can’t get around the fact that he didn’t stand up for the national anthem.”
“They are missing the fact that he’s doing this because of treatment of minorities by law enforcement, but if you read the story it says that he understood that there was going to be blowback,” Wyche said. “He understood that ‘Hey, if I lose my endorsements, if I lose my career, at least I’m going to stand up for something.’ There’s nothing in that original article that honestly hasn’t played out.”
It’s no mystery why the Kaepernick portion of these protests has become so lost in the equation.
For one, sports reporters are quite uncomfortable talking with athletes about anything other than the games they’re playing or innocuous matters like entertainment or other sports, though athletes are often quite willing to talk about those subjects.
Reggie White, the late Hall of Fame defensive lineman nicknamed the “Minister of Defense” because of his talent and his strong religious convictions, often spoke of the moment in interviews when he would invoke faith.
White said he would watch reporters close their notebooks or shut off their tape recorders for what he believed was non-interest in the topic.
There’s also the argument that the increasing demands placed upon today’s sports writers, who face constant deadline pressures and more competition, doesn’t often leave time to go beyond the basic coverage.
Then, there’s the elephant in the room: race. Seventy percent of the NFL’s players are Black, while 85 percent of sports reporters are White, according to the most recent Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports report card of sports media.
No, Colin Kaepernick’s story didn’t have to be told by a Black reporter, but the fact that it was can’t be ignored either. Who knows how many other important stories are glossed over because sports departments aren’t diverse?
At any rate, we’ll see, going forward, if “shiny objects” continue to blind the media in telling the story of how and why NFL players are on their knees.
Milton Kent is a lecturer in the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University.