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EDITORIAL: NFL protests are about justice, not the anthem

York Dispatch Editorial Board

The NFL is about to begin its third straight season under a cloud.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during pre-game performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the 2016 season. And the league continues to trip over itself in responding.

Part of the problem, as with so many issues these days, lies in the White House.

Nine days after winning the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump inserted himself into what was then still a developing controversy.

“The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!” the president-elect said on Twitter.

As usual, Trump got his facts wrong. Kaepernick and the growing numbers of players who joined him were not protesting the anthem, or America; they were protesting aggressive and often fatal police responses to victims of color, along with other social injustices.

Kaepernick himself could not have made this clearer.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said prior to the 2016 regular season. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Trump is having none of that. The president has returned to the issue repeatedly, always casting it as “players protesting the national anthem” and often berating NFL officials for what he says is an inadequate response.

FILE - In this Oct. 2, 2016 file photo, from left, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif. An arbitrator is sending Kaepernick's grievance with the NFL to trial, denying the league's request to throw out the quarterback's claims that owners conspired to keep him out of the league because of his protests of social injustice. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

He has also added it — along with insulting the media and instigating chants of “lock her up” — to his schtick at political rallies.

“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,” Trump bellowed at a September 2017 rally in Alabama.

In addition, the president suggested protesting players “shouldn’t be in the country” and has repeatedly called for NFL owners to fire players who do not show his decreed level of patriotism by standing during the national anthem.

NFL ownership hasn’t gone that far — with the arguable exception of Kaepernick. He opted out of his contract in March 2017 to become a free agent. And despite a passing rating of nearly 90 percent and a sterling Super Bowl appearance, he has remained unsigned.

Kaepernick has accused the NFL of collusion in keeping him off the field. In a blow to the league, an arbitrator last week ruled there is sufficient evidence for the case to move forward.

More:Arbitrator sends Kaepernick’s grievance against NFL to trial

More:Colin Kaepernick’s Nike deal prompts flurry of debate online

So the new season begins with nothing settled and more questions than answers.

For its part, the NFL ought to stiffen its spine and tell Trump to mind his bee’s wax while they navigate this difficult issue.

And as for Trump’s insistence on polarizing the issue in self-serving efforts to fire up his base, he would do well to consider the words of Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, who was recently confronted on the topic at a public event.

He gave a four-minute response that placed NFL protesters’ actions within the context of non-violent civil rights campaigns like those led in the 1960s by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I can think of nothing more American,” he concluded.

As the courts, the league, and even the president continue this debate, O’Rourke’s assessment is as apt a consideration as any from which to move forward.