In my last year as mayor of Philadelphia, the wisdom of using city money to help build stadiums for the Eagles and Phillies was widely debated. There was a significant argument about the economic benefits of doing so. Some experts said the city would never be repaid its initial investment, others said that new revenue generated from stadiums and stadium related activities would more than equal the taxpayers’ dollars spent. I was in the latter camp, but I expressed my strong belief that the wisdom of building these stadiums and keeping our sports teams in the city could not be judged by just economic impact. I said that I believed sports unified the people of our region more than anything else could. High net-worth suburbanites root for the Eagles but so do city dwellers earning the minimum wage. Everyone has an opinion. The president of the bank and the shoeshine guy can argue on equal footing about the wisdom of Doug Pederson’s play calling. If you wanted to see Philadelphia act as one city, you just had to experience the parade that followed the Phillies’ 2008 World Series victory. The million-strong crowd was made up of young and old, rich and poor, city dwellers and suburban residents, and people of all races, creeds and colors.
Interestingly, statements issued by many of the NFL teams after President Trump said that they should fire players who kneeled or sat during the national anthem, calling them SOBs, reflected this same view. Colts’ owner Jim Irsay said, “Sports in America have the unique ability to bring people from all walks of life and from different points of view together to work toward or root for a common goal.” Texans’ owner Robert McNair said, “The NFL specifically, and football in general, has always unified our communities and families. The comments made by the president were divisive and counterproductive to what our country needs right now.”
In response to the president’s comments, more than 200 NFL players chose to sit or kneel while the national anthem played before football games last weekend. In a rare display of unanimity between owners and players, the teams made forceful statements both supporting their players’ right to protest and at the same time, denouncing the president’s comments. Bills’ owners Terry and Kim Pegula stated, “President Trump’s remarks were divisive and disrespectful to the entire NFL community.” 49ers CEO Jed York tweeted, “The callous and offensive comments made by the president are contradictory to what this great country stands for. Our players have exercised their rights as United States citizens in order to spark conversation and action to address social injustice. We will continue to support them in their peaceful pursuit of positive change in our country and around the world.” The New York Giants statement read, “We think the national anthem is an important way to honor this great country and the men and women who protect all of us. We are thankful and respect that we live in a country where an individual has the right to make the choice in how they recognize the anthem.” The Saints issued the following statement, “Our organization takes great pride in equality and inclusion and find the comments by the president disappointing and inappropriate relative to our players on this issue. Tom Benson served in the military and continues to this day to support all military branches and feels strongly that we honor those men and women who defend our freedoms and our freedom of speech. He also believes that the very players that represent the Saints … should be allowed to share or express their feelings.” Even Patriots’ owner, Robert Kraft, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, said he was “deeply disappointed” by Trump’s tone and that, “there is no greater unifier in this country than sports.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell surprisingly issued the following strong, cogent statement: “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experience over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”
Trump says his goal is to “Make America Great Again”. What this controversy demonstrates is that he simply doesn’t understand that despite our challenges, we are still a great country, mostly because our Constitution gives us unprecedented rights and freedom. Just think of what the First Amendment says. It guarantees freedoms of religion, expression, assembly and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from promoting one religion over another and restricting an individual’s religion practices. It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government. You can look long and hard to find another country with such guarantees, but none exist.
Perhaps Eagles defensive end, Chris Long, said it best when he said: “We live in a wonderful country, and that’s what makes that flag special – the fact that you are able to protest it…to say as a president that everybody who protests peacefully deserves to be fired, maybe you’re leading the wrong country because that’s not America. This country was built on dissent.”
Amen, Chris. Amen.