Kneeling isn't about patriotism -- it's a distress signal

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Story highlights

  • Marvin Washington: Trump has turned NFL protest into something it was never about
  • Players wanted to bring attention to racial inequality in criminal justice system, he says

Marvin Washington is a retired athlete from the National Football League who played with the New York Jets, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers. He was a financial adviser for the William Small Wealth Management Group and is now an entrepreneur and ambassador for Athletes for CARE, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about issues such as addiction, chronic pain and mental health. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

(CNN)I spent 10 years playing in the NFL, won a Super Bowl and have been blessed beyond imagination -- in no small part because of the best fans in professional sports -- fans of multiple races, genders, religions and political persuasions.

Marvin Washington
I'm not confused about the role the fans played in my success and neither are the current players in the league. I understand that many NFL fans on both sides feel strongly about the National Anthem protests and the issues of race that underlie them -- so do I and so do the current players. I am an African-American who grew up in the 1960s and the vitriol that surged two Fridays ago, stoked by a speech delivered in Alabama no less, is eerily reminiscent for me of that dark time in our history.
Some players had been engaging in periodic protest long before President Donald Trump's fateful rally, but it's also fair to say this wasn't top of mind for most people before that rally. Trump suggested (mostly white) owners should fire any of the (mostly black) players on their teams who engaged in protest during the National Anthem, and he called them a profane name.
    The protests, begun by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and now being carried on by current players, are not about patriotism -- they are about systemic racial inequality in the criminal justice system. They are about how communities of color are policed -- problems that experts on both sides agree on.
    But Trump's message to black Americans was clear, and parts of his speech last month would have made George Wallace, the famously segregationist former governor of Alabama, proud. The President's comments were a deliberate feeding of a culture war centered on race. They were a choice he made that likely stemmed not from a sense of patriotism but rather out of political self-interest, designed to distract voters from his abject lack of accomplishment in office born of his own narcissism.
    The very next day, the President lashed out at Stephen Curry, star player for the NBA championship team the Golden State Warriors, with a petulant tweet. Almost immediately, Trump found himself at war with two sports leagues made up of a majority of black professional athletes, and the message to black Americans was again clear -- Trump had declared war on black athletes, and it had little to do with patriotism.
    Quite frankly, some of the fan reaction was heartbreaking. Yes, many players in the NFL make a lot of money, but the notion that being rich somehow immunizes black athletes against the pernicious effects of systemic inequality just isn't true, and one need only look at incidents involving black athletes who have alleged police brutality, such as James Blake, a former professional tennis player tackled to the ground by the police, or Michael Bennett, the Seattle Seahawks player who has accused the Las Vegas police of violating his civil rights by using racial profiling and excessive force.
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    I'm a father, as are many of the current players. We can't expect our white fans to understand the different reality faced by black parents because their lived experiences are different. I have two black sons and we've had "the conversation" that every responsible black parent has with their kids when it comes to encounters with law enforcement. I've heard many people say black parents should tell their children to "comply with the police." I can assure everyone that is the beginning and end of that conversation, and it's a conversation that never ends.
    Trump is a master of making things much bigger than him about nothing but himself, and that's clearly what has happened here. He's become so unglued over this that he applauded the vice president reportedly spending more than $200,000 in taxpayer money to travel to and then walk out of the Colts-49ers game.

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    The owners and the league now find themselves at a crossroads. Jerry Jones' threat to bench players who "disrespect the flag" is hard to take seriously, given his long history of tolerating and in some cases recruiting players who had committed violent crimes. The owners and the league need to find creative ways to join the players in advocating for real reform -- that is the true solution.
    The inescapable reality for those of us raising black sons is that we pray every time they leave the house that they don't end up becoming the next hashtag with a viral video after an encounter with the police. That's what these protests are about. What Trump has done, by contrast, is plainly the worst kind of race baiting.