So far as we know, no NFL players spat on or burned the flag this weekend. They didn’t drag it on the ground or tear it apart. When the national anthem was performed before games, they did not turn their backs or talk or make rude gestures. 

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, was probably right when he warned that NFL players, coaches and owners were doing exactly what President Donald Trump wanted.

He thrives on jingoistic patriotism and division. He is adept at changing the subject from the hard acts of governance at which he is failing and the promises he is breaking — from fixing the faults of the health care system to reforming the tax code to keeping us and our allies safe from threats like North Korea — to some new, manufactured populist cultural outrage. What happened on Sunday was probably beyond his wildest hopes when he profanely suggested that NFL owners fire anyone who protests during the national anthem, which he said displays “a total disrespect for everything we stand for.”

The protests have nothing to do with the Star Spangled Banner or the flag. Rather, they began last year when quarterback Colin Kaepernick choose to sit and later to kneel during the anthem as a means to draw attention to cases of police brutality against blacks. But Trump has turned it into something else. He has, as Sasse says, created a construct in which he can stand on the side of flag and country and put all the “elitists” — including, in this case, players “making millions of dollars in the NFL” — on the other, never mind what the kneeling is actually about.

It’s fair to ask what drove so many in the NFL to take an action that, up until Friday night, was treated as something akin to a cancer in the league. Kaepernick remains without a job, his political activism considered divisive or at least bad for business. Yet on Sunday, not only did some pro-Trump team owners condone or participate in the protests but even Ray Lewis, who once filmed a video of himself denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement and who specifically disagreed with Kaepernick’s actions, himself dropped not just to one knee but two alongside his former teammates. ...

Much to his credit, Kaepernick’s protests during the anthem were connected to much deeper activism around the issues of racial equality and justice. He pledged to donate $1 million at a rate of $100,000 per month to “organizations working in oppressed communities” and has stuck to it, despite his current unemployment, winning the NFL Players Association’s award for charitable service in the first week of the season. And he has organized “Know Your Rights” camps in various cities for young people “to raise awareness on higher education, self empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios.” These aren’t the actions of someone who rejects America, the flag or the national anthem but of someone who believes in our individual and collective responsibility to form a more perfect union.

Copyright 2017 Tribune Content Agency.

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