NFL players union again defends members, against Trump and Pence
Members of the Indianapolis Colts take a knee during the game where Vice President Pence stormed out, due to this act of protest. | AP

In a continuation of a previous battle, The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) has again had to defend its members’ rights to both free speech and to speak out on police violence against unarmed African-Americans.

But there are two differences this time. One is the union had to defend members against both GOP President Donald Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence. The other is that one NFL owner, Dallas’ Jerry Jones, took the president’s and vice president’s side, not the players’ side.

Pence started the latest brouhaha when he attended the October 8 NFL game in Indianapolis between the hometown Colts and the visiting San Francisco 49ers.

Pence and his wife stood during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner, but the 49ers knelt and then Pence and his wife walked out – with Trump’s agreement.

“I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” Pence wrote on Twitter.

“I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country. I am proud of him and @SecondLady Karen,” Trump tweeted.

That led the NFLPA to again defend its players.

“NFL players are union members and part of the labor movement that has woven the fabric of America for generations. Our men and their families are also conscientious Americans who continue to be forces for good through our communities and some have decided to use their platform to peacefully raise awareness to issues that deserve attention,” the union explained.

“It is a source of enormous pride that some of the best conversations about these issues” – police shootings of unarmed African-Americans – “have taken place in our locker rooms in a respectful, civil and thoughtful way that should serve as a model for how all of us can communicate with each other.”

And then the union referred to the U.S. Constitution, too.

“We should not stifle these discussions and cannot allow our rights to become subservient to the very opinions our Constitution protects. That is what makes us the land of the free and home of the brave,” the NFLPA concluded.

Last season, then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the playing of anthem before a game, to protest the police violence. So did another 49er, safety Eric Reid. Kaepernick said he wanted to jump-start the discussion of why police so frequently shoot unarmed African-Americans, especially young men. The team later dumped Kaepernick.

And, despite decent statistics in a league that is short of quality quarterbacks, no other NFL team has even brought him in for a workout, much less signed him to a contract.

Last month, Trump began the uproar when he referred to Kaepernick’s actions and demanded in a speech in Alabama that NFL owners “fire” every player who was, in his words, “disrespecting” the anthem and the U.S. flag.

The players, 70 percent of whom are African-American, responded the next weekend by either linking arms or kneeling along the sidelines. In statements, the owners and the NFL emphasized the players’ rights to free speech but not the shootings that prompted players to speak out. This time, however, the owners and the league, except for Dallas mogul Jones, were silent. And Jones supported Trump and Pence.

Pence “felt not standing for the flag is disrespectful. I do, too,” Jones told reporters before the Dallas-Green Bay game at Dallas. He basically threatened to bench any player who knelt.

“If we are disrespecting the flag, then we won’t play. Period. Period,” said Jones, who is also the Cowboys’ general manager, and thus in charge of roster decisions. “We’re going to respect the flag, and I’m going to create the perception of it.” He also claimed the Dallas Cowboys were united, disregarding two Cowboys who raised clenched fists at the anthem’s end.

After that, ESPN football analyst Jemele Hill, an African-American woman who previously tweeted a critique of Trump, tweeted on October 9 that people who disagreed with Jones should boycott Cowboys advertisers. The network, saying it was her second violation of its social media policy, suspended Hill for two weeks. ESPN is non-union.

Two other politicians joined the debate, on the side of the players. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Pence knew about the Colts’ plans – a point implied by comments from Pence’s aides to reporters before the game began — and so planned his walkout as “a political stunt.” And Murphy noted the government paid the $100,000 in Air Force 2 travel costs for Pence from Las Vegas to Indianapolis for the game. Pence is a former Indiana governor.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tweeted: “”Wait. This was orchestrated to make a point? That’s not an inexpensive thing to do.” And Reid, Kaepernick’s teammate, said of Pence’s walkout “This is PR,” in a video a San Francisco reporter posted.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.