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ANTHEM UPROAR: How a small protest movement in the NFL turned into a national debate over patriotism, free speech, and race relations.

Should professional athletes be allowed to kneel in protest when the national anthem is played before a game? President Trump thinks the answer is no, and his stance has sparked a national debate about patriotism, free speech, and race relations.

At a September political rally in Alabama, the president called on NFL team owners to fire football players who refuse to stand for the anthem. "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he's fired. He's fired!" Trump said.

His remarks--and a flurry of tweets later on--quickly generated an unusual wave of protests and defiance on the sidelines of America's favorite sport.

Practically overnight, what had been a modest round of demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice by a handful of African-American players mushroomed into a nationwide protest. On September 24, nearly all the players on three teams--the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Tennessee Titans, and the Seattle Seahawks--stayed in the locker room during the national anthem. On dozens of other teams, players locked arms on the sidelines to express solidarity. Many people, including players and even some team owners who had supported Trump in the election, criticized the president for fanning the flames of conflict.

"To have the president trying to intimidate people--I wanted to send a message that I don't condone that," says Julius Thomas, a Miami Dolphins tight end. "I'm not OK with somebody trying to prevent someone from standing up for what they think is important."

But the acts of defiance received a far more mixed reception from fans, both in the stadiums and on social media. Many fans objected to the idea of dragging politics into their beloved sport.

"If you want to protest, go somewhere else," says Donna Murray, an office worker from Rhode Island, at a Patriots game in Foxborough, Massachusetts. "I think if they did it in a different platform, more people would listen."

Sports & Patriotism

The protests--and the very different ways Americans responded to them--raised important questions. Do players have a right to use their fame to draw attention to causes they care about? How do you define patriotism? And is this the sort of issue the president should weigh in on?

Americans have a very intense relationship with the anthem and the flag, and displays of patriotism have become a part of the ritual of American sporting events, especially football.

This probably has to do with America's history, says Orin Starn, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, in North Carolina. Unlike most nations, the U.S. wasn't created on a common platform of religion or ancestry. Instead, Americans are bound by ideas and concepts--that all people are created equal, for example. Consequently, something that represents those ideas, like an anthem, can come to seem vitally important, even sacred.

The demonstrations intensified a debate that began last season when Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. He said it was to highlight police brutality and racial injustice.

Kaepernick, who has remained out of a job since no team decided to sign him this year, isn't the first athlete to be criticized for slighting the anthem, whether intentionally or not.

"There's a tradition going back to the '60s of black athletes calling attention to social injustice," Starn says.

In 1968, for example, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympics in Mexico City for raising gloved fists in a "black power" salute while on the medal stand during the playing of the national anthem.

'Respect for Our Country'

After Trump's comments about the NFL protests, some accused him of racism. But Trump says his comments had "nothing to do with race or anything else--this has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag."

But coming just weeks after the uproar over the president's comments in August equating white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, with protesters who showed up to oppose them, many were uncomfortable about the president wading into the nation's racial divides once again.

Even some of the president's longtime supporters were uneasy. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a friend and donor to Trtimp's campaign, said he stood behind his players.

"I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful," Kraft said in a statement.

On September 31, a week after the widespread protests, most players ended up standing during the anthem. Aware that many of their fans weren't happy, players looked for other ways to express dissent, either by kneeling before the anthem and then standing when it started, locking arms during the anthem, or raising their fists.

Kenneth Shropshire, who runs the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University, says he's not surprised by how conflicted fans are about football taking center stage in a political drama.

"As a nation, we think of sports as a distraction and something that brings us together, so we struggle when these kinds of controversies come up," says Shropshire. "But race and politics have always been part of sports."

With reporting by Ken Belson, Katharine Q. Seelye, Bill Pennington, and Juliet Macur of The New York Times

Caption: The Dallas Cowboys, led by the team's owner, Jerry Jones, (center) kneel before their game on September 25.

Caption: Colin Kaepernick (right) and his San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem in September 2016.
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Title Annotation:NATIONAL
Author:Smith, Patricia
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 30, 2017
Words:908
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