Some say sports can reflect or even be a leading indicator of change in society. President Donald Trump better hope not.

In the past two weeks, more well-known athletes, sports executives and even commissioners, including the NFL’s Roger Goodell, have taken strong public stands on societal-political issues than I have ever seen. And by a big margin.

Reggie Ragland, Aaron Rodgers

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) throws a pass under pressure from Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland (59) during the first half of an NFL game in Kansas City, Mo., on Oct. 27, 2019. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

After the death of George Floyd while in police custody and worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, bringing millions into the streets in protest, much of the sports world has been pulled — or has raced into — the political arena. And almost all are on one side — not the president’s.

For at least the past half-century, with a few conspicuous exceptions, prominent athletes either have stayed close to the political mainstream or avoided controversial social issues almost entirely. When athletes take a public position that contradicts the president, it is intensely against most of their natures — and fans know it. When those in open disagreement include white male stars, as well as execs connected to billionaire bosses, it’s indicative of more than just their convictions.

Just weeks ago, how many would have thought they would hear Goodell, for all practical purposes, apologize to Colin Kaepernick?

Who would have believed Aaron Rodgers would blast Drew Brees — two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks — for being on the wrong side of history? And that Brees would apologize and change his position on kneeling during the national anthem?


When former National League MVP Joey Votto writes an op-ed titled “My awakening” about all the self-education he needs in racial issues, and when Stanley Cup-winning goalie Braden Holtby, long conscientious, writes an eloquent position paper on police brutality, it snaps my head back.

When apolitical Mike Rizzo, general manager of the champion Washington Nationals, issues a personal statement, it’s from someplace close to the remnants of the country’s calm, sane heart: “Silence is unacceptable. Black Lives Matter. There is no place in this world for racism. We have a responsibility to speak out against police brutality and discrimination against African Americans. … I am listening. I stand with you.”


Last week, Former NBA player Michael Jordan pledged $100 million to long-term social justice initiatives. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

When we see Michael Jordan, Mr. “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” pledge $100 million to long-term social justice initiatives, we are watching something more than a trend. By sports standards, this is an avalanche. And, most telling, those taking strong positions don’t care what Trump and his bully Twitter account have to say about them.

Wednesday we heard Ron Rivera, Washington’s NFL coach who comes from a military family, say he read the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the oath of office when he was considering signing safety Eric Reid, a regular protester, in Carolina and concluded that kneeling for the anthem was about social justice, not disrespect for the flag. So, Rivera has no issue with running back Adrian Peterson, who says he’ll be taking a knee this fall. In fact, Rivera twice said that “black lives do matter” and that his team would be active in finding ways to promote that cause.

That’s a long way from Trump, who, two years ago at a rally, said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, ‘Get that son-of-a-bitch off the field now. Out! He’s fired! He’s fired!'”

Last week, the NFL released a video in which Goodell said, “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systemic oppression of black people. We … admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.”


Trump, who considers plenty of NFL fans as candidates for his base, responded Sunday by tweeting, “Could it be even remotely possible that in Roger Goodell’s rather interesting statement of peace and reconciliation, he was intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the national anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?”

Roger Goodell

FILE – In this Dec. 12, 2018, file photo, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a news conference in Irving, Texas, in December 2018.AP Photo/LM Otero, File

Because the NFL has not disciplined any players in the past two years for kneeling, that is exactly what Goodell was saying. Expect a season of kneeling NFLers, with Goodell supporting their cause and decoupling their protest from any disrespect for the flag or country.

Some, such as sociologist Harry Edwards, dismissed Goodell’s statement as meaningless, given the league’s record of hiring coaches and general managers and the fact that Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job. But Edwards also put his finger on a key point when he said: “Roger is an eminently decent man. He has a good heart.” He added that Goodell has been beholden to the owners who pay him a fortune.

Goodell always has known which way the wind is blowing. To ignore the flak he knows he’ll get from owners such as the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, as well as from Trump and some portion of NFL fans, Goodell must think the wind not only has shifted but is a full gale.

“The NFL and other interests who have been at least pliable in terms of trying to meet Trump’s expectations are going to get to the place where they’ll simply say, ‘You know what? We don’t have to do this anymore,'” Edwards said.

We expect certain sharp minds, such as Edwards or San Antonio Spurs coach and retired Air Force officer Gregg Popovich, to lash out at Trump for his divide-and-conquer use of race.


But in the past few days, the widespread sports voices of support for the Black Lives Matter movement have been followed by four former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a former Republican president (George W. Bush) and a onetime Republican presidential candidate (Mitt Romney) taking stands against a man who never admits he’s wrong and smears everyone who ever has said he is.

In sports, we watch seasons looking for turning points. When does a team catch fire? Or when do its weaknesses show and a collapse begins? In political campaigns, reporters look for the same things.

If the Trump reelection campaign were a baseball pennant race, then three months ago the president was behind but still in contention. Then he slumped with his handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic, followed by self-inflicted damage resulting from the violent removal of peaceful protesters to clear the way for his St. John’s church photo op.


In this image provided by the Executive Office of the Mayor, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser stands on the rooftop of the Hay Adams Hotel near the White House and looks out at the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ that have been painted in bright yellow letters on the street by city workers and activists, Friday, June 5, 2020, in Washington. Executive Office of the Mayor/Khalid Naji-Allah via AP

Within hours of the latter, Trump got “posterized,” in sports terms, by District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat. In a night raid after the photo op, she renamed the stretch of 16th Street NW leading to Lafayette Square and the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and had BLACK LIVES MATTER painted in 50-foot yellow letters.

Leaders with authoritarian tendencies — the kind that senior U.S. military leaders and CIA analysts describe Trump as having — count on the power of simple symbols and images of personal strength and control.

Elite athletes can sense strength and confidence, or the lack of it. It’s almost an animal instinct. They are attracted to it, sometimes to the exclusion of input from their brains. When a manager “loses the team,” it’s atavistic, not intellectual. He’s suddenly the weak prey.

Now some of our best-known sports figures are acting like Trump is a weakened coach whose authority can be ignored, who is easy to mock and who seems bewildered by a losing streak of his own making. On an enormous issue of basic justice — an anti-racist cause supported by billions around the world — Trump was, and had been for many years, on the wrong side.

And athletes recognized it.

To a degree unseen in a lifetime, the president has lost America’s clubhouse. Is the White House next?

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