NFL should respect players rather than punish them for protesting

NFL should respect players rather than punish them for protesting
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Some things are bigger than money. Some things are bigger than television ratings. Some things are bigger than any one individual or any one political party. Some things are so important that no level of bullying or demagoguing will make it go away. That’s where we now stand on the issue of athletes kneeling prior to or during the national anthem.

This issue will not go away, nor should it, because the issue that athletes and supporters like myself are drawing attention to is not about the flag or the people that fight to protect it, it’s about fundamental fairness. It’s about taking a look at whether every American in this country matters. It’s about the hypocrisy in saying that all lives matter, while black men like Patrick Harmon are shot in the back while running away. It’s about a group of people feeling like their voices aren’t being heard, their cries are being ignored, and the promise of opportunity is unfulfilled.

It’s easy for certain networks and certain commentators to use “hands up,” as was the case with Michael Brown, as an example of when the media got a narrative wrong. It’s even easier to make the issue of kneeling about disrespecting the flag or disrespecting our troops. What requires courage and strength is standing up and acknowledging how we as Americans got to this crossroad. What is challenging is not taking the easy political out and boxing your players in.

When Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones drew a line in the sand, he not only bet on African American athletes choosing a paycheck over their own morals, he also bet on the apathy and ignorance of all Americans. That’s a dangerous bet. Athletes are human beings before everything else. They are the totality of their experiences, and you can be sure that many of those athletes have experienced the discrimination and inequality that led to kneeling in the first place. You can also be sure that each and every athlete is accountable not just to the owner of their team and the league that they play in, but also to the families and neighborhoods that they represent.

These athletes have to go home. These athletes have to go back to the people and neighborhoods that they come from. While Jones may sign the paychecks, he isn’t sitting around the dinner table on Thanksgiving or Christmas. His stance on kneeling may matter to the players, but not as much as the opinion of the wives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters of the players. Owners are making a big mistake if they believe that players can be silenced by financial means.

Jones isn’t the only member of the Cowboys family who can make threats about potential playing time. African Americans make up 70 percent of the players in the National Football League. What should really make the NFL and it’s owners nervous is the potential reaction by a large majority of its African American players in response to Jones’s edict. The NFL needs to look no further than the NBA players and their response to former Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

NBA athletes all across the league were willing to forgo their paychecks to show the league, the owners and the American people that they were more than their athletic prowess. Athletes like Lebron James and Chris Paul made it clear that they were more than their ability to run, dunk and bring in income for their billionaire owners. That’s what Mike Wilbon meant when he compared NFL owners to slave masters. That’s what Jemele Hill meant when she challenged NFL players to make a difficult decision.

The owners may employ the athletes, but they don’t own them, they pay them. As an employee, the players now have to decide whether the cost of doing business is worth it. They must decide whether losing a game check is worth making a much larger point to the American public, that point being that American exceptionalism is a two street. America is absolutely the greatest country in the world, but it didn’t get there by accident. Rooted in our exceptionalism is dark journey that has been built on the blood sweat and tears of black people, who have been exploited throughout history.

One only needs to talk a walk down Martin Luther King Boulevard in any major city to see the systemic inequality plaguing our inner cities. Jones isn’t stupid. He knows how broken our system is, but he’s chosen financial profits over the human costs of his decision. He chose to make a mockery of taking a knee one week and then banning it the next. Not only do his actions potentially violate labor laws, but they violate the fundamentals of this country. Now NFL players have a choice.

If Jones cares about his players, then he’ll close his mouth and open his heart. If Jones sees his players as anything other than a commodity, then he’ll recognize that at it’s essence, protesting is about making people uncomfortable. At it’s essence, protesting is about using your platform to create a better country for everyone. At it’s essence, protesting is as American as apple pie.

If any team or any owner should recognize the importance of allowing free speech, it’s “America’s team.” If Jones wants to be a real cowboy, he’ll buck the president and allow players to continue to protest as they see fit. History will judge the NFL, Jones and the players that take the field on Sunday by how they respond. The owners may control the pocketbooks, but the players control the product. The American people are about to find out just how big the issue of kneeling really is.

Michael Starr Hopkins is an attorney and former member of the presidential campaigns of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump has 62 percent disapproval rating in new AP poll Rising Warren faces uphill climb with black voters Obama explains decision to get into movie business: 'We all have a sacred story' MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts new immigration policy, backtracks on tax cuts Hickenlooper announces Senate bid MORE. He regularly appears on Fox News and CNN to talk about national politics. You can follow him on Twitter @TheOnlyHonest.