Why Trump’s Criticism of NFL Players is Racist

Alan Noble
9 min readSep 24, 2017




At a rally in Alabama, President Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s FIRED!’”

After receiving backlash for his comments, Trump tweeted:

Later he called for a boycott of the NFL:

To defend his fight against the NFL, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin was sent out on the Sunday morning show circuit, where he insisted that “it’s not about free speech” and it’s not about politics. It’s about respecting our military, first responders, and nation.

So what?

One of the challenges of being a good citizen under the Trump administration is learning how to choose what issues deserve a response. Puerto Rico has been demolished by hurricanes. Trump continues to escalate tensions with North Korea by insisting on using childish taunts. Why should we care what he has to say about a handful of NFL players? Isn’t all this attention exactly what he wants? And if so, aren’t we only feeding his ego by responding?

Also, Trump never mentions race in any of his comments about kneeling during the national anthem. He has only made the argument that kneeling dishonors our military and that owners should assert their rights as employers to restrict the speech of their employees. So, it’s not clearly about race and he is not actually infringing upon anyone’s right to free speech.

Seen this way, this weekend’s Trump-NFL drama seems like more Trumpist reality TV nonsense, meant to bait liberals into getting mad enough that their “heads explode” and to unite loyal Americans behind the common-sense appreciation of our flag, military, and first responders.

Hold up

The trademark of Trump’s use of racism is plausible deniability. Many people on the right are extremely skeptical of all accusations of racism, micro-aggressions, and triggers. They feel like the modern “woke” world is filled with landmines, with snowflake liberals who hunt for obscure racist motives behind mundane words and actions. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of people grossly exaggerating claims of bigotry, especially online, so their concerns are at least in part based on reality.

But this fear has turned into the belief that if a meaning is not on the surface, then it is almost certainly imaginary. If it’s not obviously racism, then it’s not racism. And if you say it’s racism when it’s not obvious, then you are racist and are causing divisions in our nation. Add to this skepticism of all deep meanings an unwillingness to accept the reality of contemporary racism, especially systemic racism, and soon you don’t see racism anywhere.

Trump has played upon this skepticism towards deep meanings while using those meanings to appeal to racial animus and bigotry in some supporters. So, he can call Mexicans rapists, and thus demonize a nationality, while denying bigotry by saying that he was only referring to the “bad hombres.” His supporters find their bias against hispanics validated without identifying themselves as racist. And this NFL fight is another prime example.

To the crowd rallying in Alabama, Kaepernick represents an ungrateful, elitist, entitled, rich, unamerican black young man. But the problem is not that he’s black, it’s that he’s ungrateful and unpatriotic. So, they can tell themselves that race is irrelevant.

But despite Sec. Mnuchin’s claim that this is not about politics, and despite supporters’ claims that it’s not about race, it is.

Why racism?

The peaceful, non-disruptive protests during the national anthem have all been about one thing: objecting to police brutality and systemic racism in America. Those kneeling are overwhelmingly black men. And they are protesting systemic racism experienced by Black Americans. Kneeling, an almost universally respectful act, is a way of pointing to what they believe are profound flaws in our country. They are not mocking the flag or the country or those who have died for our rights; they are drawing attention to the treatment of Black Americans by law enforcement.

Which makes it all the more interesting that Sec. Mnuchin said that the flag represented “first responders,” along with the military and our nation. First off, we should note that the flag represents the United States of America. Our military and police and all other parts of our government are part of our country, but they are not specifically what the flag represents. The flag no more represents the military than it does postal workers or teachers. A national flag primarily represents the military and first responders only when military might and domestic law and order are the most significant parts of our nation, like in an empire or police state.

This does nothing to diminish the sacrifices fellow citizens have made for our freedom. In fact, it honors their sacrifices. Part of the promise of America is the flourishing of citizens together, not our military might. We are grateful for sacrifices and service, but America is not our military. And when our flag comes to primarily represent the military, then our national identity has more in common with empires and police states than democracies.

Second, Mnuchin’s focus on “first responders” being disrespected is a reference to the motive of kneeling. NFL players are kneeling because they believe that the police, one major group of first responders, across our country have a problem with brutality and with targeting minorities. Whether or not you agree with their claims, you should be able to appreciate the value in allowing citizens to peacefully protest what they believe to be a serious injustice in America. I expect pro-choice advocates to allow me to protest abortion, and I will support their right to protest pro-life legislation.

If Christian NFL players felt compelled by their conscience to kneel during the anthem because our government permits and supports the murder of unborn children, I would respect that.

Mnuchin’s logic fits with a larger theme of Trump’s criticism: if players want to protest on their own time, fine, but when the national anthem is sung, everyone must respect the police by standing.

Notably, Trump has not addressed the substance of this protest at all. There is absolutely no acknowledgment that the players have concerns. If all you knew about the protests was what you have read or heard from our president, you’d think a bunch of spoiled millionaire black athletes just hate America. I cannot stress how divisive and vile this is.

Even if you disagree with Kaepernick’s view on police brutality and racism, even if you think he has the statistics wrong and is exaggerating the problem, you must acknowledge that there is a specific political purpose behind his actions. By framing this entirely as an issue of respect, Trump dismisses all their concerns and creates a much deeper divide in our nation.

If you want to address tensions in a community, you have to listen to people. Even if you believe they are wrong, if you will not listen, if you will not acknowledge their view, there will be no reconciliation and healing — unless you use violence and force, like taking people’s jobs away.

This is unity through suppression of dissent, and as a conservative Christian, this terrifies and infuriates me.

Even more troubling, Trump’s framing of this issue flows entirely from the way white politicians in America have historically treated and oppressed black people. And this history matters. Black men, women and, children have been murdered, raped, lynched, beaten, and otherwise abused for not showing enough respect to white authorities. And there’s an obvious reason for this. When you enslave and then systematically oppress people, your greatest fear is uprising. And with this fear comes the demand for “respect,” especially respect in the face of oppression. It’s fine if black people want to complain about police violence, so long as they respect the ultimate authority: the military, police, and State.

Another reason Trump doesn’t address the motive behind the protests is that one of his unofficial campaign platforms was that racism is not really a serious problem in America today and that criticism of the police is wrong. Many Americans feel the same way. They have decided that there is no problem in our country with race and policing, so Kaepernick is unjustified in protesting in the first place.

But it goes much further than that. There is a prominent belief that our government, particularly under Obama, has babied minorities and black people especially, resulting in a mass of entitled, disrespectful, ungrateful people. Between food stamps, affirmative action, and diversity initiatives, black people have the real privilege. Plus, white Americans sacrificed their lives to free slaves, and it has been half a century since Jim Crow ended. I have heard this view articulated over and over. And if you accept this logic, then NFL players who protest racial injustice are poster boys of everything wrong with minorities. They have equality, they have government assistance, they have affirmative action, they have million dollar jobs, and they still aren’t happy?

Which bring us back to these tweets:

If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!

The way Trump frames this, black players do not have a right to the fruits of their labor unless they are respectful to our nation, which means refraining from criticizing our nation for systemic racism on TV. As I said, kneeling is respectful, but when respect is about asserting power, only those in power get to define what constitutes respect. Thus, standing with locked hands in a sign of solidarity is “respectful” but kneeling silently in solidarity is not:

Of course, Trump didn’t say “black players” in these tweets, because he doesn’t have to. If he said that, he would lose plausible deniability of racism. And anyway, we all know who he’s referring to. He is objecting to black players protesting over racism against black people in America. His comments are intrinsically tied to race.

His demand that black players respect the flag or lose their jobs is an attempt to coerce national unity. Rather than their high-paying jobs being the result of hard work and talent, Trump frames it as a privilege.

His comments are inescapably racist. They target a specific race. They target players of that race because they are protesting against racism. They completely dismiss the substance of their protests against racism. They frame the fruit of the players’ labor as a privilege, not a right. They reflect Trump’s belief that there is no serious problem with policing and racism. And they follow the historical precedent of denying black people ownership of their labor and demanding respect in the face of oppression.

But doesn’t Trump want us to play the “race card”?

Even if you agree with me that Trump’s comments are racist, divisive, and vile, there is still the question of what to do about it. Remember all those people who are skeptical of any accusation of race or deeper meaning in language? If we come out and call Trump’s words racist, we will be playing right into his hands. All he and his surrogates will do is point out that he never mentioned race and that this is just about respecting our great military and first responders. Then they will accuse his critics of being irrational race-baiters who hate America.

If we call what is racist, racist, Trump will receive the attention and satisfaction he wants. If we don’t call what is racist, racist, then he suffers no cost for his immoral, destructive actions. How do we respond?

As a Christian, my obligation is to the true, good, and beautiful. As a citizen, my obligation is to love my neighbor by holding our elected officials accountable using the rights granted to me by our constitution. I cannot and should not waste my time agonizing over whether or not a corrupt leader is trying to bait me into condemning his evil actions. My responsibility is to speak out against injustice and use the legal and ethical methods I have available to me to work towards justice. I need to be careful about which battles I choose and how I use my time and energy, but it is not moral for me to ignore the offenses of our president simply because he likes the drama. Insofar as I am able, I will be faithful to the truth I am given. And pray for justice.

All views expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization I am affiliated with.



Alan Noble

Associate Professor of English, Oklahoma Baptist University, author of Disruptive Witness, You Are Not Your Own, and On Getting Out of Bed (soon).