The Right Use of the Bully Pulpit

In late August 2016 Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, members of the San Francisco 49ers football team first knelt on one knee as the national anthem was sung before kick-off. Their gesture was designed, Reid reiterated in an opinion piece in the 25 September 2017 New York Times, to bring attention to “the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police.” Reid carefully explained that they “chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

reid and colin-kaepernick kneeling

I get it, and so does every other thinking American. There is a problem in the United States, and Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick had a platform to peacefully bring attention to it. It’s often called “the bully pulpit,” the standing and opportunity to catch people’s attention and address a problem. As members of the 49ers, Reid and Kaepernick used their prestige to begin to address the nationwide problem of police brutality and its too-frequent result: the death of unarmed African Americans.

The silent, non-violent protest has been going on for over a year. Kaepernick lost his position as 49ers quarterback in part because of it. He remains unemployed.

So why did Donald Trump seize upon a year-old, ongoing demonstration and use his bully pulpit to misrepresent what the players are doing, insult the whole National Football League, and create a firestorm of controversy last Friday? Because he doesn’t understand the issue? Because he doesn’t believe that Black lives matter? Because he is a racist? Or because he can’t deal with the problems he faces as president and needs to direct the public’s attention elsewhere? How about all of the above?

There are those who say that athletes should not express their concerns or that they should not express them on the field of play. But the playing field is their bully pulpit. Where would you have them mount their protest – someplace where it can’t be seen? Someplace where those who can do something about it don’t have to pay attention?

Just in case you are among those whom Trump has misled, the protests we saw Sunday and Monday were not designed to disrespect anything or anyone. The only person disrespecting anyone is Donald Trump. He is the one who brought the flag and the military into the discussion. For the players, it has always been and continues to be about fair and equitable treatment of people of color by law enforcement. Sunday and Monday, because of Trump’s attack on the NFL, the demonstrations became about standing up to Mr. Trump and supporting each other while continuing to peacefully and respectfully bring attention to their initial cause. It appears they chose the right time, place, and posture to do it.

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