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If NFL owners are terrified of players taking a knee, just wait until they take a stand

Professional football players wield incredible power. If only they would use it.

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 17: Eli Harold #57, Eric Reid #35, Marquise Goodwin #11 and Louis Murphy #18 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline during the anthem as Solomon Thomas #94, Reuben Foster #56 and Adrian Colbert #38 stand with them in support, prior to the game against the Tennessee Titans at Levi's Stadium on December 17, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers defeated the Titans 25-23. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 17: Eli Harold #57, Eric Reid #35, Marquise Goodwin #11 and Louis Murphy #18 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline during the anthem as Solomon Thomas #94, Reuben Foster #56 and Adrian Colbert #38 stand with them in support, prior to the game against the Tennessee Titans at Levi's Stadium on December 17, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers defeated the Titans 25-23. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

A Twitter-based rumor ignited my hope that black professional football players might be ready, willing, and able to take a unified stand against the plantation-polis of their teams’ owners.

Shaun King, a social activist with an uncanny talent for being at the center of nearly every race-based controversy across the land, reported Sunday on Twitter that he’d talked with “[s]everal star @NFL players” who are organizing to have one of every four players sit out the upcoming season “until the de facto ban of Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick is removed and both men are given spots back on rosters.”

For those who haven’t been paying close attention to what the Associated Press sports department deemed as 2017’s “biggest story of the year,” Kaepernick was a San Francisco 49ers quarterback who protested racial discrimination and police abuses in America by quietly taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem during several pre- and regular-season games in 2016. When the season ended, Kaepernick became a free agent and hasn’t found a spot on an NFL team since. The same fate recently befell his teammate, safety Eric Reid, who joined in Kaepernick’s protest and is now an unsigned free agent despite his stellar performances on the field. Both of the players are suing the NFL, arguing the league’s owners are colluding to keep them out of professional football for exercising their freedom of speech.

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King has been vociferous in his support of Kaepernick and other protesting pro football players. But given that King is something of a race-protest gadfly who enthusiastically shouts into his highly amplified social media bullhorn to raise alarms over injustices both real and imagined, his support of the black players has proven to be a double-edged sword. He angers many conservative and white football fans while endearing black supporters with his advocacy on behalf of causes like Black Lives Matter and victims of police brutality

Earlier this month, for instance, King’s race-man street cred glowed brightly as he ceaselessly campaigned on Twitter against Aaron Schlossberg, the Manhattan lawyer caught on camera making xenophobic comments about Spanish-speaking customers and workers in a New York City deli.

Days later, King’s credibility took a direct hit after he lent his considerable voice to a black woman’s claim that a Texas trooper sexually assaulted her during a routine stop for a suspected traffic violation. With his help, the story made national headlines, only to be skinned back in an embarrassing admission that the trooper’s body cam revealed the woman’s story wasn’t true.

Set against a backdrop of an inky race-and-sports Rorschach test, the NFL owners last week upped the ante of divergent public perceptions by announcing a new rule forbidding players from kneeling in protest while on the field during the national anthem. The league said players have the option of staying off the field, if they don’t want to stand during the pre-game observances. Violations of the rule would result in a fine being levied on their team.

Players aren’t without leverage and they’re not totally beholden to their billionaire bosses. Football fans come to see starring athletes, not fat cats in the luxury suites.

The new rule is clearly intended to alleviate some of the pressure put upon team owners by President Donald Trump, who urged them to fire protesting players. Trump praised the announcement of the new rule, but didn’t back away from his attacks on players who don’t agree.

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“Well, I think that’s good,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “I don’t think people should be staying in locker rooms, but still I think it’s good. You have to stand, proudly, for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

I — and nearly 115,000 people who, by Tuesday afternoon, had “liked” King’s Twitter post — want to believe that his weekend tweet was a real harbinger of an athlete-led resistance movement against Trump, NFL owners, and all those who falsely portray peaceful protest as un-American.

Professional football players need to take more than a knee; they need to stand up to their team owners and Trump. Truth be told, players have not only the moral authority, but an untapped power to bring change to the NFL, and to the nation at large.

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Ben Strauss, co-author of award-winning  “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” made the moral case earlier this week in a convincing POLITICO essay, noting that black athletes have, in the past, shaped the social, cultural, and political environment of the nation. He wrote:

During the past half-century, dominated as it has been by culture-rattling debates over race and social justice, there have been numerous examples of activist athletes who suffered ostracism and worse, only to see themselves welcomed and even glorified decades later by a society whose conscience finally caught up to the righteousness of their causes. The media who scorned them in the hottest moment of their protest produced respectful biopics and coolly reconsidered their roles in a much longer arc of history. In short, these kneeling football players’ reputations will likely be rehabilitated sufficiently that the general public who boycotted and harassed them for disrupting their entertainment with politics may well one day embrace them as unsung heroes. “This isn’t a win that history is going to look too kindly on,” said Lou Moore, a sports historian and Grand Valley State University professor. “It will take some time, but Kaepernick will be proven right.”

As for the power argument, well, there are certainly risks. If protesting players hold out for their demands, they won’t get paid salaries. Maybe the players who dare buck the system, like Kaepernick and Reid, will never play again, losing millions of dollars in the short term.

But the players aren’t without leverage either, and they’re not totally beholden to their billionaire bosses. Football fans come to see starring athletes, not fat cats in the luxury suites. 

According to the annual racial and gender report card published by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, the NFL is almost 70 percent black. In some playmaking positions, such as running back, black players account for more than 87 percent of the players. NFL cornerbacks are 99.4 percent black.

In other words, black professional football players are the fan favorites, even as they are criticized and condemned as unpatriotic for kneeling. It’s black men who put butts in the stands and attract advertisers to weekly Sunday telecasts. So imagine a week or two, or even — at the most extreme — three games of the season where professional football teams were forced to field predominately white teams largely made up of kickers and punters, where about 97.8 percent of the players are white? You’d basically be left with a soccer game. No doubt the owners themselves would join the players in kneeling if it meant that the games — and the money they generate — get to kickoff.

Thus far, the players have publicly shown only a limited resolve, more talk and little action in the face of the owners’ hostile and disrespectful attacks on their citizenship and, in one egregious case, their freedom. No self-respecting professional — whether an athlete on the playing field or business person in the workplace — should tolerate such behavior.

So that’s why Shaun King’s tweet elevated my hopes. Although I’ve heard little to nothing of a player protest in the days since King tossed it out on social media, I’m desperately hoping his tweet has legs as powerful as a first-round pick at running back. Despite King’s checkered history of reliability, I’m rooting that he’s right this time, satiating my perhaps overly optimistic dream that professional athletes will use  their celebrity status to press for their own self-respect and help the nation reclaim its own, as well.