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NFL National Anthem Protests Recall History Of Sports And Politics

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Across the U.S. and even in London yesterday, NFL players, coaches and owners were defiant. Some stayed in the locker room as the national anthem was sung. Some knelt. Others locked arms in solidarity. It was a silent rebuke of President Trump. At a rally Friday in Alabama, he used profanity to urge owners to fire players who refuse to stand for the anthem. And he doubled down on that on Twitter over the weekend.

To put all of these protests into historical perspective, we're joined by sports journalist Bruce Schoenfeld. Welcome.

BRUCE SCHOENFELD: Thanks.

CHANG: So I want to step back for a little bit. For how long have athletes used their platform to protest what they see as political or social wrongs?

SCHOENFELD: This is something that has existed in some form really since the beginning of sports. And sports remains one of the few things that cuts across - or not remains. It has become one of the few things that cuts across kind of socio-economic and demographic lines. So athletes have a platform that I think these days few other public figures do, and they've become increasingly willing to use it.

CHANG: Decades ago when athletes were taking a stand and protesting, was there more at stake? Did they have more to lose?

SCHOENFELD: You know, they had more to lose and less to lose. When we look back to, for example, John Carlos and Tommie Smith in the 1968 Olympics, who raised the fist on the medal podium...

CHANG: Right.

SCHOENFELD: ...The black power salute - they had - financially, they really didn't have much to lose because they weren't getting paid anyway. At the same time, you know, Muhammad Ali had his status as heavyweight champion of the world to lose. Part of it is the money being able to insulate them from any criticism they get or from a league blackballing them. Even in the fairly recent past, NBA athletes thought, gee, if I make noise, they'll get rid of me. And if they get rid of me, I'm not playing anymore.

CHANG: And what is it about athletes in particular that make them especially well-positioned to be a voice on things that don't have to do with sports? Besides their very large platform, is there some status that we ascribe to athletes in our society?

SCHOENFELD: I think that athletes - there's an aspirational quality to that. And I had and most of the boys that I knew had posters of athletes, you know, on the wall when I was growing up. We've seen an erosion of the credibility - if that's the right word - of a lot of other public figures. You know, from newscasters and lawmakers, journalists, onward, I think athletes are among the few out there that people on both sides of the divide may say at least going into this that they trust, that have no other motive beyond saying, hey, this is what's happening out there.

CHANG: What do you make now of NFL team owners, some of whom contributed to Trump's campaign, who are now linking arms with their players during the anthem and issuing statements saying they support their players and that Trump is wrong? Is this a big deal to hear from owners?

SCHOENFELD: Well, it is a big deal. But you know, one thing that's happened just in the last couple of days is that the topic at hand has shifted from Colin Kaepernick's topic, the original kneeling during the anthem, which was to say, I can't really honor a country that just discredits or mistreats my people to such extent, which is a fairly controversial statement. It shifted from that to one of free speech. And I think that it's not contradictory or mutually exclusive for Robert Kraft of the Patriots or Shahid Khan of the Jaguar's to say, hey, I wanted this guy to be president, but I don't think he's right that these athletes are just entertainers and should just shut up.

CHANG: Bruce Schoenfeld is a sports journalist. His article "The Justice League" was published in Esquire today. Thank you very much for joining us.

SCHOENFELD: Thanks so much, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.