Sports has a unique way of bringing us together. Why, then, must some insist on using them to drive us apart?
As I walked to Union Station on that mellow fall day in 2015, I was thinking, “This is what sport is all about. In a world full of strife, sport has the potential, at least occasionally, to unite people of all races, creeds, and political aberrations in a shared, joyful, civic ritual.”
The occasion, of course, was the parade in honor of the Kansas City Royals. The Royals had just smacked down the New York Mets in the World Series. People were happy. I think I read somewhere that 12 million or so of them showed up Downtown. It certainly felt that way.
That was baseball. Football is different. If the Chiefs win the Super Bowl this year, there will be a parade. Lots of people will come, but lots of people will not, me among the “nots.”
In the meantime, if I happen to catch the Chiefs on TV, I’ll root for them. If they lose, I’ll shrug it off. If they request money for stadium repairs, I’ll vote “no.”
The Chiefs, alas, have shattered the illusion of shared values and severed the civic bond. They are one of 32 NFL teams to have done so. To affirm this bond, all the players had to do was stand during the national anthem and look respectful. For at least several players on every team, this was too much to ask.
Some would say that the NFL’s has been the most mindless protest movement in recent history, but we in the Show-Me State remember the November 2015 brouhaha at the University of Missouri. When a grad student whose old man makes $8 million a year goes on a hunger strike to protest “white privilege,” the movement is off to a shaky start.
The NFL protest is just as shaky. As it happens, the NFL protest and the MU protest trace their origins to the same Missouri source, the pointlessly mean streets of Ferguson.
On August 9, 2014, the not-so-gentle giant Michael Brown rushed Officer Darren Wilson much as Justin Houston rushes an opposing QB, but without Houston’s compassion. There was no ref to throw a flag on this play. It was to be a battle to the death. As history records, Brown lost.
Brown fans called foul. They said he had stood passively with his hands raised in the air while the racist Wilson fired away. The major media saw the political value in this lie, however easily disproved, and ran with it.
It was in Missouri that NFL players first decided to share their angst with the world. In late November 2014, five St. Louis Rams ran on to the field with their hands in the air, mimicking Brown’s imagined “hands up, don’t shoot gesture.” Soon after, the Rams left town on a permanent road trip. A lot of locals, cops in particular, were not sorry to see them go.
A grand jury listened to the testimony of the real eyewitnesses in Ferguson and cleared Wilson. So too did Obama’s racially finicky Justice Department. Soon afterwards, I met with Wilson in his humble St. Louis home on a weekday afternoon.
A hunted man, Wilson and his wife had to buy the house through an alias. While we talked, he rocked his new baby. He had no job. Although he had done everything right, the Ferguson PD fired him, and the local police forces were afraid to hire him.
The illusion of shared values and a civic bond has been shattered by a select handful of NFL ‘protestors.’ But what, precisely, is really being protested?
Colin Kaepernick lost his job too, at least his job as a starting quarter-back. Halfway through the 2015 season, the 49ers benched him in favor of former MU star Blaine Gabbert. Kaepernick asked to be traded, but teams were less than eager to pick up this $20-million-a-year nut.
The 2016 season looked no more promising than 2015 for Kaepernick. Pouting, he chose to sit during the anthem in the first two pre-season games. No one noticed. Someone did notice after the third game on August 26.
Kaepernick, who has a white mother and a white adopted family, dressed up his protest. Said he, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Curiously, Kaepernick launched his protest during the eighth year of the Barack Obama presidency.
Pause for a moment, if you will, and consider that timeline: It covers eight years in which an African American held the office generally considered the most powerful in the world. Eight years in which another African American headed the United States Department of Justice. Eight years in which every U.S. attorney and almost every county prosecutor in an urban setting was a Democrat. So it’s not quite clear who was doing the oppressing.
“There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” said Kaepernick. He was at least half-right: There were bodies in the street.
“The anti-police frenzy since the Ferguson tragedy has caused a crime disaster in the black neighborhoods of America,” local political scientist Ernest Evans argues.
The numbers tell the tale. Although the homicide rate fell steadily from 2006 to 2014, the trend reversed itself almost on cue after the August 2014 shooting in Ferguson. In 2016, there were 3,000 more murders in the U.S. than in 2014.
The “Ferguson effect” hit hardest close to home. In Missouri, the murder rate jumped 33 percent in just two years. In 2016, St. Louis led the nation in homicides per capita. Kansas City was close behind. There were fully twice as many black homicide victims in Kansas City in 2016 as there were in 2014—and the police were not doing the killing.
Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters knows none of this. Getting on the Kaepernick bandwagon, he gave a black-power salute during the playing of the national anthem on September 11, 2016. He has stayed on that careening bandwagon since.
Kaepernick insists we need “real conversations.” He is right. We do. To get started, I recommend he spend an afternoon with Darren Wilson inSt. Louis and talk to him about police brutality and inequality.