Those rallies, they do something to President Donald Trump. They do something to the United States of America, too. They make them less united.
That’s what happened Friday, when the president, apparently chafing after days of being in presidential mode, let loose at a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, for U.S. Senate candidate Luther Strange. He let loose against the National Football League and, especially, Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco quarterback who, in the summer of 2016, knelt during a pre-game rendition of the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” protesting racism and police killings of black men.
President Trump said anybody who took a knee was being disrespectful of the flag, the national anthem, police and the military.
The most memorable Trump quote from that rally in Alabama? “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners — when somebody disrespects our flag — say,
‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
The next day, the president suggested that team owners fire any player that took a knee in protest. A barrage of tweets along similar lines followed.
With all that was said, it made for an unusual NFL Sunday.
In a startling show of unity as well as diversity, the NFL — players, owners and coaches — took visceral umbrage to the president’s words, attitudes, tones and suggestions.
Trump’s outburst seemed to come out of nowhere. Kaepernick’s protests, and those by other players on other teams, took place last year. Though they continued to some degree, things had quieted down, and Kaepernick, who had become a free agent, was not picked up by any team. Many saw this as unspoken blackballing.
Everything changed with the Trump explosion. Almost every team in the NFL reacted in some way or another, blasting, criticizing and protesting against the president’s comments, gathering together, linking arms on the field, staying in the locker room or, at times, kneeling or sitting. This was mostly a sharp rebuke of Trump — but it was also an uptick in Kaepernick-style protesting.
The Washington Redskins, who were playing a Sunday-night game, finally gathered on the field, arm in arm, owner Dan Snyder included. Even Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, a Trump friend who contributed a million dollars to his campaign, sharply criticized him.
In stadiums across the country, fans let their feelings be known too, some booing the players, some cheering them.
So, what was at stake here?
We’re thinking it was freedom of expression, tolerance of other peoples’ opinions, the right both to give respect and to earn it. These are what our most treasured national institutions — including the flag and the national anthem — symbolize. These things have meaning. They touch the heart with no false sense of patriotism.
The president, who has a gift for dividing not uniting, managed to bring an entire sport together in, mostly, outrage.
Nobody was fired that day. Trump chose to spark a firestorm — amid his dangerous “Little Rocket Man” feud with the leader of North Korea, amid an ongoing and devastating tragedy in Puerto Rico, which he did not address — when there was no reason or need for one.
We think “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an occasion for unity. It was written by Georgetowner Francis Scott Key during times that questioned our unity. Our national anthem is a way to celebrate all our cherished rights, including the one that should allow us to protest silently by taking a knee — and, yes, the right to protest that protest.