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GOP Lawmaker: Defund NFL Team Over Player Protests

Auditi Guha

More than 200 NFL players on 19 teams linked arms, knelt, or sat out the national anthem Sunday after President Trump blasted players who took a knee to protest police brutality against people of color.

A Louisiana Republican state legislator wants to cut state funding for the New Orleans Saints after some of its members joined more than 200 National Football League players to sit out the national anthem before their Sunday game against the Carolina Panthers.

“The very reason (the Saints) have the privilege and opportunity to play professional football while being paid millions is because someone in uniform died protecting their right to do so. It is a disgrace to the men and women of this nation and state who have sacrificed so much,” state Rep. Kenny Havard (R-St. Francisville) said in a statement.

Havard said people should exercise free speech rights on their own time and “not at a taxpayer subsidized sporting event.”

Public funding and tax breaks make up about $165 million of the Saints’ $1.5 billion value, according to a 2016 Times-Picayune estimate. Tom Benson, Louisiana’s richest resident with a $2.2 billion fortune, owns the Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans, both of which benefit from taxpayer money. 

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Greg Bensel, senior vice president of communications for the two organizations, declined to comment Monday on Havard’s threat.

More than 200 NFL players on 19 teams linked arms, knelt, or sat out the national anthem Sunday after President Trump blasted players who took a knee, calling them a “son of a bitch,” and said the team owners, many of whom he said are his friends, should fire them for protesting racial injustice and police brutality against people of color. 

Trump recently rescinded a White House invitation for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors player Stephen Curry after Curry said he would not come to the White House, as championship teams typically do. In response, the Warriors decided as a team not to attend and LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar, called Trump “a bum.”

Trump supporters like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural campaign, have taken issue with the president’s attacks on Black athletes. 

The NFL and its teams also responded in support of their players and the Democratic Coalition filed an ethics complaint against the president, AOL reported.

“Donald Trump thinks he’s above the law, but this is a reminder that he’s not,” said Scott Dworkin, senior adviser of the coalition, according to the Wrap.

As Trump continued his Twitter attacks Monday, he denied they had anything to do with race.

But race is the reason that sparked these protests since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem last year to draw attention to the police brutality Black people face in the United States. No NFL team has signed Kaepernick, a one-time Super Bowl quarterback, since the end of the 2016 season. 

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Eric Reid, a former teammate of Kaepernick’s, defended their act of civil disobedience. “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy,” he wrote on Monday.

Athletes standing for the anthem is a fairly recent phenomenon. Players were “encouraged but not required to stand” according to the NFL, and many of them waited it out in the locker room prior to 2009, Comcast Sportsnet New England reported in the aftermath of the Kaepernick controversy.

A 2015 PBS investigation revealed that the Department of Defense paid the NFL more than $5 million between between 2011 to 2014 to stage pro-military propaganda. 

Hugely profitable corporations that receive millions in taxpayer funds and subsidies, the NFL and the NBA are made up of mostly Black players. The teams are owned largely by white business tycoons. Michael Jordan is the only black owner of an NBA team. Shad Khan, who gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, is the only Muslim owner in the major American professional sports. 

Running campaigns in support of Black athletes, Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization, condemned Trump’s tirade against athletes taking a knee during the national anthem to draw attention to systemic racial injustice. 

“Almost every NFL owner is white. Nearly 70 perfect of players are Black. Yet for Donald Trump this power imbalance is not enough—he wants to be sure that players who exercise their right to protest social injustice can be fired with impunity. This is what it means to advance a white supremacist worldview,” Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson said in a statement. “Trump’s comments are not limited to Colin Kaepernick, who has already been blackballed by the NFL. They are not even limited to to all those NFL players who have joined Kaepernick’s protest while still in the league, putting their careers on the line by speaking out against injustice. Rather, they reflect a wider view of sports in which Black people serve for the pleasure of white people, and any who deviate that—such as Stephen Curry and Jemele Hill—will be ruthlessly silenced.”

Ashland Johnson, Human Rights Campaign’s director of public education and research, defended the protesting athletes as “true patriots.”

“The First Amendment is a cornerstone of our democracy and any attempts to suppress or intimidate free speech have no place in public discourse,” she added.

As Warriors head coach Steve Kerr pointed out last weekend, “No matter how many times a football player says, ‘I honor our military, but I’m protesting police brutality and racial inequality,’ it doesn’t matter. Nationalists are saying, ‘You’re disrespecting our flag.’ Well, you know what else is disrespectful to our flag? Racism.”

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