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Trump to NFL players: Stand or be suspended

President Trump railed against NFL players who protested during preseason games, saying the players are outraged about "something that most of them are unable to define."

Posted: Aug 11, 2018 2:46 PM
Updated: Aug 11, 2018 3:00 PM

We can't know whether President Donald Trump is sincerely offended when he tweets right on cue, slamming football players for kneeling while the National Anthem is played -- as some did Thursday before a dozen preseason games across the US.

Maybe he's trying to use the issue as a distraction from his own troubles. Maybe he's cynically trying to rally his base with this "very winning, strong issue for me," as he told Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in a phone call earlier this year, according to a deposition.

We do know that Trump is not going to miss an opportunity to criticize the league, owners and/or players.

We also know that every time the media reports that criticism while using images of players kneeling on the sideline, it makes for good TV and tantalizing clickbait.

But the media does not have to play along.

How the President chooses to use Twitter is a reflection on him. And how the media chooses to cover the story is a reflection on it. Which is why at a time in which journalism has been under attack, it is critical that we cover the issue -- all of it -- responsibly.

I am frustrated about this, and I am not the only one. Allow me to remind us all:

--The players are protesting police brutality and the well-documented inequities of the criminal justice system.

--These protests occur during the national anthem. They are not protesting the national anthem.

--Using shorthand such as "anthem protest" or putting the focus on individual players by, for example, keeping a running tab on which players kneeled is not responsible.

When the coverage of this legitimate American protest gets fast and loose with these facts -- or becomes seduced by the can't-miss visual of kneeling players and frothing President -- the media fails to do its primary job: report the story. Yes, the President being critical of private citizens exercising their First Amendment rights is news. As is the way these protests are being received. But the story is why they are kneeling.

If only we had such an appetite for reporting the gap in sentence length between the races for similar crimes. Or noting that an African-American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent, and that "by the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent -- in most cases a father -- being imprisoned for some period of time," according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, as reported by the Washington Post.

This is the reason for the protests, which began in 2016: to draw attention to what NFL players see as systematic bias against people of color.

What's more,Trump tweeting that the players should "be happy, be cool" is in conflict with a tweet he sent out in May in which he claimed to have had a "great meeting" with Kim Kardashian about prison reform and sentencing. In fact, the meeting was so great the next month he commuted the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a first-time drug offender who was not charged with a violent crime.

Did he think Johnson was the only person saddled with such injustice, or did he do it for a publicity stunt? Because "be happy, be cool" is the kind of comment only a politician who is detached from the severity of the issue would make -- the kind of response from someone who thinks the problem has been solved simply because he plucked one lucky grandmother out of federal prison.

In fact, in June, Trump appeared to offload onto all of us responsibility for the problem that the players and their advocates are trying to highlight -- one that affects millions of American families.

He said: "I am going to ask all of those people to recommend to me -- because that's what they're protesting -- people that they think were unfairly treated by the justice system ... And I understand that. And I'm going to ask them to recommend to me people that were unfairly treated -- friends of theirs or people that they know about -- and I'm going to take a look at those applications. And if I find, and my committee finds that they are unfairly treated, then we will pardon them or at least let them out."

A suggestion box is not how you bring fairness to a justice system that is deeply unjust to African-Americans.

I know the purpose of the players' protest is not as sexy as our President whipping up conflict, but the purpose of the players' protest saved Johnson's life. If covered responsibly, the purpose of the player's protest could save countless more.

Somewhere between Colin Kaepernick and the President calling NFL players sons of bitches, that element of the story faded away. And very little of the preseason coverage of the protests suggests the trend is changing, which is very sad.

Instead we get: Oooooh Trump said they should be suspended without pay. Oooooh the Dallas Cowboys owner said they must stand to be a Cowboy. And let's get a wide shot of the sideline and cutaway of fan reactions.

When a football player does something wrong, we turn the spotlight on the substance of the complaint. But when he is using his platform to turn attention to a problem that has haunted this country for decades, we reach for the superficial drama, the sexy angle. I get it, criminal justice reform does not have the same buzz as a Trump tweet ... but that doesn't mean it's not the essential part of the story.

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