All Rise, or Not, for the United States of Football
Once again, we’ve got a lot going on in my hometown of Cleveland that’s attracting national attention.
Even as I write on this Wednesday afternoon, the background noise of my television is making me dare to believe that our baseball team is about to make American League history by winning its 21st consecutive victory.
Shh. I just typed that in a whisper. I’ve got no use for jinxes or other crazy superstitions except when it comes to Cleveland baseball.
This column isn’t about baseball. It’s about Cleveland Browns football players, the national anthem and a police union president who has a habit of making us sound like a town of time travelers who just arrived with a thud from somewhere in the 1950s.
First, some history: Last year, now-former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick protested racial oppression and inequality in the United States by sitting down during the national anthem before a preseason game. In later games, he kneeled when the song was played.
Kaepernick remains a free agent this season. Apparently, this is what happens when a black athlete dares to exercise his First Amendment rights during a white guys party.
Until Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, I had no idea so many Americans think there is a constitutional exemption for black men who play football. This is especially curious when the white Founding Fathers agreed to set the census value of a black slave as 60 percent of a free person.
Kaepernick is teamless, but his protest lives on. Throughout this preseason, a number of teams’ black players sat or kneeled during the song. A week after Browns coach Hue Jackson said “everybody has a right” to protest but he hoped his team wouldn’t do such a thing, about a dozen of his players kneeled.
Most were black, but not all; Browns tight end Seth DeValve joined them.
That got attention, in a “what’s this white guy think he’s doing?” kind of way. An inevitable fascination, I suppose, when so many white Americans still want to believe racial injustice is just black people’s problem.
DeValve said the U.S. is the “greatest country in the world” but equal opportunity for all remains elusive. “I wanted to support my African-American teammates today who wanted to take a knee,” he said. “I myself will be raising children that don’t look like me, and I want to do my part, as well, to do everything I can to raise them in a better environment than we have right now.”
His wife, Erica Harris DeValve, is black. In a blog post for The Root, she cautioned against making her husband the hero of this story. He’s an ally, she insisted.
“To center the focus of Monday’s demonstration solely on Seth is to distract from what our real focus should be: listening to the experiences and the voices of the black people who are using their platforms to continue to bring the issue of racism in the U.S. to the forefront.”
Our young people will save us from ourselves, I swear.
Steve Loomis, who is head of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, was having none of this. His union members, he declared, would boycott the Browns’ pregame flag ceremony.
Loomis is white — but in that way that makes a lot of us white people wince.
Two years ago, Cleveland was the focus of critical national coverage after a white police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Loomis repeatedly defended the shooting and characterized Tamir in increasingly menacing terms. At one point, he texted a photo to me of a student drawing, hanging in a high-school hallway, that depicted a white police officer harassing a black man sitting at a lunch counter. It was titled “Civil Disobedience.”
“Connie, this is what we are up against,” Loomis wrote. “The kids should be taught to respect elders and authority not defy it.”
This was during Black History Month. I called the principal to confirm the obvious: The man in the drawing was Martin Luther King Jr.
Last Sunday, during pregame ceremonies, the Cleveland I love came through loud and clear. The Browns aired a one-minute video starring white and black players and Coach Jackson. They emphasized their commitment to justice and their support for the promise of America.
During the national anthem, Browns players locked arms with law enforcement agents and emergency workers and stood tall and strong. And then they played football.
(P.S. The Cleveland Indians just won game 21. I’m whispering.)
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.