The Presidents Cup is this week, and the 45th President, Donald Trump, is the honorary chairman as the United States team takes on the Internationals at the timely-named Liberty National in Jersey City, N.J., in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
Trump has made his views on NFL athletes (and NBA players and, to date, one Major League Baseball player) clear. He thinks those "sons of bitches" should be fired for trying to bring awareness to racial injustice and police brutality while kneeling during the national anthem. No doubt, millions -- people who voted for him, mostly, but people who didn't also -- agree with him. Millions disagree with Trump, understanding that these players have a First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and share their views with the country on a massive stage.
This week, golf presents a tournament in one of the few instances where the national anthem is paid much attention on the course. One team is rallied under the banner of Old Glory, and the other is rallied under a concocted banner to create a common competition for the Americans. Naturally, the idea of playing for country -- no matter what you think of that idea -- inspires patriotism and invokes the "Star-Spangled Banner." So, the PGA Tour, which owns and runs the Presidents Cup, will play the Francis Scott Key poem-turned-song several times during the event.
Don't expect a single player on either side of the matches to take a knee, or turn their back or show any form of protest in solidarity with their fellow professional athletes. Golf is largely a Republican game, particularly at the elite and country-club levels. The sport generally is conservative in its views, and golfers, including the pros, typically go out of their way to show military appreciation. It's become tradition at pro golf events to have a hole with the American flag on the flagstick on the green, and a service member is greenside to tend it while the players finish the hole. Then the players come through, shake hands with the military member and move on with their round. It's a thoughtful and respectful gesture.
However, over the years and particularly since 9/11, we have perhaps unintentionally conflated the meaning of the American flag and the national anthem as solely belonging to the military and our nation's defense. And that's perhaps why someone taking a knee during the national anthem is so offensive to so many people. Flags and songs are symbols. They don't have absolute meaning, and they're left to interpretation for each individual. For me, the American flag flies above as a representation and reminder of the ideals we hope to uphold and spread down below it. My American ideals are different than yours. I prioritize respect, the perhaps impossible pursuit of equal opportunity, and I demand each citizen and guest in our country is afforded the same rights as the next person. If you had to vocalize what your American ideals are, they wouldn't sound exactly like that, or like that at all. That's good. That's the point.
So, when Presidents Cup vice-captain and two-time U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III expressed this week his views on the protests at NFL games, I was disappointed.
“I think you’ll see in golf that there’s a little bit more restraint,” he said Tuesday on Golf Channel's "Morning Drive". “We adhere to our rulebook and to our core values and to our traditions, and I think that’s why our sport is so successful. … There’s a time for us to protest, and it really isn’t during the national anthem. We ought to take a break during the prayer or during the national anthem to thank our country, to thank our forefathers who went before us. And then we can protest with our votes, with our letters to our congressmen or however we want.
“But I think President Trump is right. There is a time for protest, and it probably isn’t during the national anthem. Our country has fought hard for that right.”
Love's refrain is a common one -- not just in golf but from anyone who finds their sensibilities offended by the protests.
I back your right to protest, but now's not the time.
OK, then when is the right time? That's the answer that never comes. Is it when they're at home? On Twitter or Insta or Facebook? Is it when they're somewhere you can't see them?
That's the point of protest. It's to make someone notice, tick someone off a little, make them feel uncomfortable. It's to break a sense of routine and tradition because they way things have been done isn't acceptable to the protesters. It's a delicate act of trying to court empathy by inducing anxiety -- to make someone feel, for a moment, what they or others they know experience much more often. It wouldn't be a protest if, say, all the players messily ate popcorn on the field at the 2 Minute Warning. That'd be silly. It wouldn't be a protest if the players took knees in the locker room after the game, with the cameras off. No one would see that.
There is certainly a danger, too, in doing something so bold and provocative that a protester loses the chance to win someone to their side before they can ever fully explain their issue. It can make someone a pariah. It can also be costly financially. To that end, what about those who say these players shouldn't be doing this at their job? Protesters of all ilk, regardless of status, should know the risks of speaking out. Most employment in this country is at-will, meaning an employee can be fired at any time for almost any reason. The NFL players know they could be released and blackballed similar to Colin Kaepernick if this continues, though the protests have likely reached a point that action either way by the owners would result in a tidal wave of backlash. That has left the owners, even those who donated to Trump's campaign and inauguration fund, stuck.
Then there's the dog-whistle racist talking point that these player should be "grateful" for what they've been "given," presumably not so much by NFL owners who pay the salaries as much as NFL fans who have made the sport our national pastime. White people aren't expected to be "grateful" when they become successful, make millions and gain a louder voice with their money and influence. That's Trump in a nutshell. People of color aren't simply "given" opportunities. They take them, just like anyone else. This is an opportunity, fraught with peril, a successful professional athlete has -- to use their platform, however long they have it and how they see fit. You have the opportunity as a fan, consumer and American to respond how you wish.
A protest is meant to be jarring. It's meant to grab attention by doing something that's not expected and, yes, likely offensive. Those on any side of an issue or argument are afforded that constitutional protection. Unfortunately, the man holding our nation's highest political office seems to lack the conviction to acknowledge that. President Trump didn't tell those "fine" racists in Charlottesville that is wasn't the right time to protest on a nice weekend in a quiet college town. But, and here's the difference, I wouldn't either. Under the Constitution, peacefully assembled, lawful protesters have a right to hear their voices heard and grievances aired, no matter how offensive it is to a larger quorum. The people have the right to protest, and the people have the right to embrace, ignore or reject.
The Constitution is not a document of convenience. We can't cherry-pick the rights we want or when someone else can exercise theirs.
However, we as Americans have the choice and the freedom to embrace, ignore or reject just about anything else. It's amazing. We can choose our religion, our political views, how we spend our money, who represents us. If you reject these players' means of protest or their cause, you can do that and be vocal about it. But I would implore you to understand that these protests aren't done on a whim. They're not designed to specifically anger you. They're done to bring emotional attention to a real issue affecting millions. The sooner we all agree there's a problem, the sooner we can move to a solution.
And, frankly, there's no time to waste.