Like many avid American Football fans last night, I tuned into the BBC’s NFL This Week, eager and apprehensive as to whether the show would substantially deal with the urgent racial inequalities brought to the fore by recent player protests. A significant part of me feared that the programme would tow the Government line and skirt around America’s problems, instead choosing to focus solely on the week’s sporting action.
I was thus delighted to find NFL This Week’s black co-hosts, Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora, launching from the get-go into a scathing criticism of President Trump’s comments regarding NFL players refusing to stand for the American national anthem. The most powerful and moving contribution came from Umenyiora, a Brit who declared his love and even his willingness to die for the country which took him in and facilitated the fruition of his wildest dreams.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that these are not the ‘disgraceful’ hallmarks of anti-American sentiment. Yet, in the interest of BBC balance, this did not prevent primary host Mark Chapman from reeling off his list of painfully blatant pre-prepared retorts, cycling lackadaisically through the assembled alt-right favourites, “What about the flag?” and “What about the veterans?”.
This ten-minute section of the programme was turning into quite the emotional rollercoaster as my bouts of seething anger at the unreflective trash on Chapman’s script were quelled by the elegant, affable responses of Bell and Umenyiora. The two football experts pointed out that the protests are nothing to do with the flag or the military and that America was founded by a protest of individuals against untenable circumstances.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that there is a major point being badly missed on both sides of the debate. Do Trump’s followers who label the player protests as disrespectful to the American military not realise that African-Americans constitute a significant proportion of United States servicemen and veterans?
African-Americans have a long and proud history of service in the United States military, often while they were facing barbaric drudgery at home. Over the course of the American Revolution, 5,000 mostly enslaved black Americans volunteered to fight for the freedom of a fledgeling nation that recognised them only as property. When the First World War ravaged Europe, hundreds of African-Americans heeded the call to carry into battle the flag that their descendants now stand accused of disrespecting. Despite having fought to make the world free for democracy, many of these brave veterans could expect to be hanged from trees and burned alive for daring to wear their uniforms in public. Throughout the latter half of the 20th Century and continuing up to the present day, African-Americans are still overrepresented in the U.S. Armed Forces.
As is quickly becoming the norm in American affairs, the reaction to NFL protests exposed the perceptions and prejudices of white Americans in measures equal to and greater than the injustices faced by black Americans. By misrepresenting a protest against social inequality and police brutality faced by America’s people of colour as slating the military, flag, and national anthem, the aforementioned symbols are coded by the accusers as being white institutions.
The fact that a protest initiated by black American Football players immediately led President Trump and a significant chunk of the white American public to jump to the defence of the symbols of state power — in the very act of doing so implicitly claiming them as white symbols — serves as further evidence of the white nationalist outlook currently flourishing in the United States and its governing administration.
It remains for these prominent African-Americans, as it does equally for players and fans of all backgrounds, to stand firm in their fight for justice, even in times where America shows its true colour.