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Can patriotism and protest coexist in professional sports?

Much is possible if we all prayerfully hit the pause button, and persevere together in charity to heal a divided nation.

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters Sept. 19 in New York. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)

President Donald Trump should humbly—and perseveringly—engage NFL players and other professional athletes on why they protest during the National Anthem before their respective games, and NFL players should consider ways they can better express their patriotism, without sacrificing their right to protest.

A number of people have recently called the president a white supremacist or have defended those who have done so. As I’ve noted elsewhere, that is a term of opprobrium that characterizes people like Adolf Hitler and the younger version of former Alabama Governor George Wallace. On the other hand, I have recognized that President Trump has acted in bigoted ways in his life toward blacks and others.

And I also submit that the president is needlessly alienating a large segment of African-Americans. While the president accurately says he’s never mentioned race in his comments about NFL protests, he can see the impact of his words. The NFL protesters have largely been blacks who have protested injustices, particularly the unjust killings of other blacks by some policemen. I also realize that black-on-black crime is a scourge that continues, but that doesn’t negate the reality that historical injustices have contributed to that scourge, nor mean that present-day protests by NFL and other pros are without merit.

Which brings us to the question: How can President Trump help bring the country together with his words and actions at this time? Let me be completely transparent. I am not a member of any political party, and, contra Ta-Nehisi Coates’ influential analysis in The Atlantic, my vote for President Trump in Michigan had nothing to do with white supremacy.

But Trump’s calling protesting NFL players SOBs—and telling NFL owners that they should suspend or fire their players—is antithetical to the unifying force he should be as president.

I agree with Tom Brady, the star quarterback of the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots and a white man who also voted for Trump: the president’s recent comments were “just divisive.” And instead of pausing to reflect on how he could diffuse the situation, the president continues to double down in a bullheaded way, saying that NFL owners “are afraid of their players.”

Mr. President, take the high road. Invite some leading NFL players and black leaders to the White House to discuss why they are protesting, how they might possibly protest in a more productive manner, and how you can aid the cause. And persist in that invitation, if it’s not immediately accepted.

In addition, reinstate your invitation to Stephen Curry, the star point-guard of the NBA World Champion Golden State Warriors, and his teammates in general, when they come to Washington, DC—and persist in offering them an open invitation if they decline to visit the White House on their upcoming trip. And apologize to the NFL players for calling them SOBs and affirm them for all they do for their communities beyond the field. And if by doing so you alienate that tiny minority of your supporters who are truly white supremacists, well, you’ll be doing them an instructive favor of which the latter-day Governor Wallace would be proud.

Real leadership requires the virtue of charity and humility is an indispensable element of love at its best. Mr. President, you’re better than your recent comments. And as a fellow brother in Christ, I charitably encourage you strive to be a humble, childlike disciple so as to navigate your service as president in an increasingly fruitful way (CCC 2546).

Yes, the NFL has many rules for its players, including what they can wear and some silly prescriptions about how they can or cannot celebrate a touchdown (genuine taunting of their opponents excluded). But we can’t tell professional athletes that we expect them to be public role models for kids while simultaneously telling them that they can never protest, because peaceful public protests can be a positive part of serving as role models.

Which brings me to the NFL players and other professional athletes. Gentlemen, I love football and the positive influence it has had and can have on young people. And as I’ve written elsewhere, like ESPN’s Jemele Hill, I grew up in Detroit and share her concerns for the black community. Back in 1986, as a reporter for the CBS affiliate in Montgomery, Ala., I interviewed the legendary “Chief” Alfred Anderson, who trained the Tuskegee Airmen who served with great distinction in World War II. Those who were prisoners of war, Anderson told me, reported better treatment by their Nazis captors than in post-World-War-II America.

Persistent, post-war conditions contributed to the anthem protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos 20 year later at the 1968 Summer Olympics, which I recall from my youth. While many didn’t like their demonstration, it certainly got the nation’s attention.

Now, almost 50 years later, NFL players and other professional athletes have the nation’s attention. I charitably encourage them to make the most of it. Because military veterans and other Americans have taken offense at their actions and perhaps misunderstood their intent, I suggest that the players—whether they continue to kneel, bow their heads like Smith and Carlos, and/or link arms—also put their hands over their hearts to unmistakably convey that they truly love their country, pledging allegiance to what this nations stands for at its best, but not everything about what it has been or still is. (But avoid sitting on the bench during the anthem, as it’ll only send a message of unproductive defiance.)

And I suggest that their teammates—white and otherwise—can and should join them in a show of patriotic solidarity of what this country can and should be. And the NFL could start—in cooperation with the president and local government and religious leaders—initiatives that foster understanding between various ethnic and religious groups in cooperative ventures aimed at improving their local communities, whether that’s removing trash in neighborhoods in need, as I participated in Steubenville, Ohio, or mentoring young men being raised without fathers.

Much is possible if we all prayerfully hit the pause button, and persevere together in charity when we run into trials.

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About Thomas J. Nash 13 Articles
Thomas J. Nash is a Contributing Apologist and Speaker for Catholic Answers and a Contributing Blogger for the National Catholic Register. He is the author of What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church and The Biblical Roots of the Mass. He has served the Catholic Church professionally for more than 35 years, including as a Theology Advisor for the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).


  1. There’s nothing that can’t be accomplished through prayer but first one has to be silent and that is NOT going to happen these days. Trump can’t shut up and his detractors can’t help reacting like Pavlov’s dogs every time he opens his mouth.

  2. One remonstrates with a brother in private, not in an article published for public consumption.

    Hiding behind the veneer of Christian virtue is why conservatives continue to lose the culture war. Conservatives don’t understand the nature of the conflict.

    • Have to disagree on a number of points, SOL. Including that this is legitimate journalism from a Catholic perspective, as J. Dean understands. In addition, The Gospel doesn’t necessarily require us to privately admonish and exhort a brother for that matter, witness Christ’s interactions with Peter on more than occasion that others observed. Further, did I fail in charity? No. In addition, my audience was bigger than the President himself, as noted in my commentary. Finally, I understand the nature of conflict(s) of the culture wars, as do the CWR editors. God bless you.

  3. This author clearly is under the mistaken impression that all American protesters are patriots. Many on campus and the football field believe the American state is not reformable.

    • Thanks, AHR. I don’t presume that all American protesters are patriots. Was speaking about a particular group of people–NFL players. And I don’t presume they’re all perfect either.

  4. Mr. Nash,

    I appreciate your effort to take a middle-road in this current debate. I fear you may have imputed nobler motives to the NFL players’ actions than what is deserved. A more common-sense view, I think, is that these are very talented, yet admittedly, spoiled young persons in their 20s and 30s who get millions of dollars every year to play a game. Public relations, appearances, and giving to charities are compelled in many of their contracts. I would hope that many, if not most, of them, though, truly give to their communities from their heart.

    The kneeling protests of a few hundred NFL players stem from a supposed solidarity with the original kneeling of just one player, Colin Kapernick, whose wife has ties to radical “divisive” groups like Black Lives Matter. So, again, to me, this appears as nothing but grandstanding and using their popular platform to send what will only be interpreted as the wrong message to most of the American people. Fox Channel may be right in no longer showing the anthem in the beginning of the game so to not appear to endorse the players’ own views.

    I agree with you the president could have used better words. However, I realize many times in the past he has tried using better words, yet it mattered not, because those on the opposite side do not care about the words and only want the president to be removed from office. And when he does use the right words, the words are never good enough for them.

    Be that as it may, I do believe in the 1st Amendment and the right to peacefully protest. But there are other, better ways to get a message across besides protesting the very symbol that has allowed so many tens of millions of minorities to become successful in this country.

    • Thanks, J. Dean, for your constructive approach. I think they’re reacting to a number of factors, not simply Kaepernick, as noted, and I think Trump’s various recent public actions have sadly exacerbated matters. God bless you.

  5. Can rat droppings coexist with beef in meatloaf? Maybe, but don’t expect me to (knowingly) consume it. It’s the same with the NFL.

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