Analysis: Herschel Walker sticks up for Trump but misconstrues protesting athletes

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Apparently, that story involves a President who’s definitely not a racist, as his longtime friend and former NFL player Herschel Walker, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and the Senate’s only Black Republican, Tim Scott, repeatedly emphasized. (You’re forgiven if you’re thinking: “Doth protest too much.”)

But that “great American story” also doesn’t include … protest.

“Just because someone loves and respects the flag, our national anthem, and our country doesn’t mean they don’t care about social justice,” Walker said on Monday. “I care about all of those things, and so does Donald Trump. He shows how much he cares about social justice and the Black community through his actions. And his actions speak louder than any stickers or slogans on a jersey.”

Walker said the above words on a night that featured speakers intent on downplaying the idea that Trump is a racist. Necessary maneuvering, given how the President has responded to a season shaped by Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Indeed, Walker took a thinly veiled swipe at the protests that, in some ways, have defined sports over the past few years. But like other detractors, he warped the situation — and even ignored history.

As a whole, athletes aren’t protesting the flag. Nor are they protesting “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Rather, they’re protesting police brutality against Black Americans — how racism can take easy refuge in a system that too often fails to hold officers accountable for the racial violence they inflict.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who four years ago began kneeling during the national anthem, said in 2016. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Evidently, Walker and his ilk are aggrieved more by players’ support for racial justice or by being called a racist than by the at times dangerous behavior of agents of the state, and thus level slippery accusations of disrespect.

“When I see people kneeling during the playing and disrespecting our flag and disrespecting our national anthem, what I do, personally, is turn off the game,” Trump said earlier this month, responding to NBA players who had taken a knee. (Around the same time, photos of WNBA players in T-shirts that endorsed a Georgia Democrat went viral.)

But athletes know that their dissent is in service of something tactile, urgent: There are bodies in the street.

Walker didn’t just misrepresent players’ motives. He also papered over the fact that, especially for Black Americans, protesting during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” has long had strong ties to civil rights advocacy.

Recall the 1968 Olympics. When the sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos climbed the podium to claim their gold and bronze medals, respectively, the national anthem blasting in the background, each lowered his head and raised a black-gloved fist in the air.

Seen as a Black Power salute, Smith and Carlos’ actions resulted in one of the most famous images to come out of an era of massive social and political change.

Unsurprisingly, a James Baldwin quote is as neat a distillation of the protests among athletes, and as pithy a rebuttal to Walker’s Monday remarks, as might be possible.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually,” Baldwin writes in “Notes of a Native Son,” his 1955 collection of essays on race at home and abroad.

The ongoing demonstrations aren’t signs of disrespect. They reveal a deep-seated belief in the possibility of progress — in the idea that America’s reality can be brought in line with its supposed values.

The knees on fields, the fists in the sky, the messages on jerseys: Such gestures don’t put America in the most flattering light, but all the same, they’re part of the “great American story.”

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