Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t sleep Sunday night, and on Monday afternoon the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback decided that he could remain silent no longer. Donald Trump had leaned blearily into an ad-lib encouraging NFL owners to take a firm hand with players who kneel in protest during the national anthem—“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag,” Trump honked Friday night toward a rally crowd in Alabama, “to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired! He’s fired!” He then encouraged fans to boycott NFL games until the time such actions were taken. He also talked about how the game wasn’t violent enough anymore, and how there were too many penalties, and presumably also about how they make the orange juice too strong these days and should bring back CHiPs and whatever else was troubling his soft, wet plum of a brain.
As a result of some of that, or all of it, Sunday emerged as an unofficial and notably amorphous day of NFL protest. The league and a few of its owners issued statements that ranged from the Perfectly Circular to Deeply If Not Specifically Concerned, and players and teams took their own actions. They sat or kneeled or raised clenched fists in protest against the police murder of black men and women, or against Trump’s hambone authoritarian grievance theater, or on behalf of a certain vague notion of unity. The gesture was the thing, and more than enough to draw heckling and boos at games and opprobrium from the usual opprobrium-industry professionals.
Roethlisberger’s Steelers mostly didn’t even do that. Instead, the team decided to do what it did during the first five seasons of Roethlisberger’s NFL career whenever the anthem was played. The players stayed in the stadium tunnel, with the exception of one offensive lineman, the former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva, who stood alone at the entrance. “The idea was to be unified as a team when so much attention is paid to things dividing our country, but I wish we approached it differently,” Roethlisberger said in his statement. He went on:
I personally don’t believe the Anthem is ever the time to make any type of protest. For me, and many others on my team and around the league, it is a tribute to those who commit to serve and protect our country, current and past, especially the ones that made the ultimate sacrifice.
I appreciate the unique diversity in my team and throughout the league and completely support the call for social change and the pursuit of true equality. Moving forward, I hope standing for the Anthem shows solidarity as a nation, that we stand united in respect for the people on the front lines protecting our freedom and keeping us safe.
What began as a very specific protest against police violence and impunity and for the broader dignity of black lives—and what, for the players at the center of the protest, remains very much about that—broadened and softened over the course of the day into something different. By the next evening’s Monday Night Football broadcast, it had become something mild enough that Jerry Jones, the leatherette petro-creature who owns the Dallas Cowboys, could participate in it. Before the Cowboys-Cardinals broadcast last night, and just before the anthem, Jones knelt with his team; in doing so, he became the second NFL owner to have both donated at least $1 million to Trump’s inaugural and engaged in this particular protest.
A protest broad enough to include Jerry Fucking Jones could charitably be described as absurd, but in retrospect it could hardly have been otherwise. The NFL, as an entity, has whatever the exact inverse of a social conscience is. At the same time, though, the league’s institutional dedication to canned thunder and spectacle aligns nicely with Trump’s, even at moments like this when the two find themselves in opposition. And so a protest about dignity became about Trump, our working definition of dignity’s opposite, as all things in our discourse now invariably must. A protest that was about a specific set of injustices became about something incalculably dumber: the civic duty to have some sort of public response to whatever whinging oafishness Trump is substituting for governance at any given moment.
Presidents and their priorities always shape and drive the national conversation, and this most vain and addled and supremely priority-deficient president had done it again. It’s hard to say that this is another instance of everyone else playing checkers while Trump plays chess. It looked, as the discourse splintered into a heated non-conversation about the rudeness of protest and the ah entitlement of certain athletes, like the usual: Trump very slowly, very confidently, putting all the chess pieces into his mouth, one by one, because he thinks they’re unusually shaped Tootsie Rolls.
He supported the protest, provided that the protest was altered such that it looked exactly like the absence of protest.
It took a superior thinker, a more refined and discerning intellect, to bring things all the way around. It took Roethlisberger, who has generally made a strategic retreat into terse message discipline in his public statements since beating back a pair of rape charges in 2010 and 2012, to bring the protest full circle. Roethlisberger supported the goals of the protest, provided that those goals are understood in the most general possible sense; he supported the protest, provided that the protest was altered such that it looked exactly like the absence of protest. It would only be then, Roethlisberger believed, that the protest’s true strength would be realized, and its purpose fulfilled. We would all be doing the same thing, and so we would all be together, and so we would all be equal, and God bless. What sounds ridiculous when a ham-shaped quarterback puts it in a statement looks even more so when Jerry Jones takes a knee, but this is naturally how the NFL would play it—a hard right turn toward the old authoritarian brand truths, a vision of unity and equality that contains only trace amounts of either.
“I just want to know,” the former NFL tight end Shannon Sharpe had asked on Fox Sports 1 earlier on Monday, “what are you unifying against? Are you showing unity, are you showing solidarity against racism, or the injustices in this country, or are you showing solidarity against President Trump and what he said, his attack on the NFL, the shield… What are we uniting against? What are we standing for now?”
These are good questions; you can tell because of how transparently the NFL wishes to avoid engaging them. The Arizona Cardinals crowd booed Jones and the Cowboys, as they naturally would boo a Cowboys team on the road but also as polling suggests such a crowd would do anywhere in the NFL, where fans say they oppose these protests by more than 50 percent, with only 38 percent approving. A different Cato Institute poll suggested that 61 percent of those polled did not wish to see players “fired” for their protests. This is complicated, but mostly it is not.
There is the feeling of a civic duty to have some sort of public response to whatever whinging oafishness Trump is substituting for governance at any given moment.
The most basic fact of the protest movement in the NFL is this: while it is open to any- and everyone who can be moved to care, it is about something, a very specific set of crimes and an easily identifiable community of perpetrators. It comes by its divisiveness naturally, by making explicit the split between people who care about these things and people who, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t or don’t. This is what has always been both so telling and so sad about the wild umbrage that Colin Kaepernick’s understated protest has inspired—the inability or unwillingness of critics to engage its simple central point. Instead, again and again, we see the same reflexive self-defense of taking offense on behalf of The Flag or Our Military because NFL fans and sports commentators can’t or won’t let themselves say that they don’t want to be asked, even gently, to think about things that they don’t want to think about.
For Kaepernick and others, this protest was about politics as it exists in the real world from moment to moment, about the systems that politics creates and perpetuates. But that is not how politics exists in this Trump-damaged moment, or in the NFL. In that case, politics is about a feeling, an itch or irritation that doesn’t quite achieve the pathos of emotion. It’s about reaction and reflex and revulsion, the old animal things that drive every stupid thing that Trump does. It is no surprise that a base inhumanity, a simple urge to deny, is the only coherent through-line in what I guess we have to call our president’s politics. It’s fine to unite against this, of course, although it’s not clear that the NFL’s unity goes much deeper than choreography.
Anyway, even if it is, it’s just a first step. Unity, equality, all the other soft old NFL words currently getting play—these words mean something. They’re not things that are performed, but things that are approached and pursued through politics and struggle. That being reminded of how far we are from those ideals so terrifies so many NFL fans says a great deal about the incuriosity and ignorance and abject wimpiness of our moment. That the NFL would try to skip past the uncomfortable parts and go directly to the United In Unity stuff, on the other hand, tells us nothing we don’t already know. It’s a reminder of how grandiosely and how glibly the league thinks about itself—and how little it thinks of everyone else. Trump couldn’t have picked a more perfect partner.