For Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players protesting systemic racism, every play is first down and a thousand yards to go.
Friday night, the NFL at long last acknowledged its mistake in trying to silence Kaepernick and other protesters (though, notably, without mentioning Kaepernick by name). Sunday morning, Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, once again trotted out the old “protesting is unpatriotic” line, despite the fact that it’s been debunked, destroyed and dismissed by anyone who’s been paying attention.
Speaking to CNN’s “State of the Union,” Carson echoed President Trump’s declaration that protests disrespect the American flag, but offered what appeared to be a conciliatory move toward the middle:
“My personal feeling is, if those players were to come out and say, ‘We love our nation, we are patriots, we love our flag, we honor the memory of those who died to give us our freedom, but we are protesting some of the brutality that has occurred, and that’s why we're doing this,’ I think it would solve the problem,” Carson said. “And I suggest that they do that.”
A superficial reading of that line makes it seem reasonable enough; we all love our country, right? But dig a little deeper. There are two problems here:
1. The right to protest isn’t conditional on some declaration of patriotism. It’s inherent to being an American. Indeed — considering how our nation actually came into existence — there’s a much stronger line of argument that holds that protesting societal injustice is the most American act you can do. Loving something and wanting it to be better aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.
2 More importantly: Even though that’s not the point of the protest, Kaepernick and his colleagues have all already declared their love for America and their respect for the troops. Many, many times. Just one example: September 2016, when Kaepernick was in uniform for San Francisco’s preseason game against the then-San Diego Chargers. He stood for “God Bless America,” then knelt for the anthem, and explained his reasoning after the game.
“The media painted this as I’m anti-American, anti-men-and-women of the military and that’s not the case at all,’’ Kaepernick said that day. “I realize that men and women of the military go out and sacrifice their lives and put themselves in harm’s way for my freedom of speech and my freedoms in this country and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee so I have the utmost respect for them. I think what I did was taken out of context and spun a different way.’’
Later, he was even more succinct and direct: “Once again, I’m not anti-American. I love America.”
Other players later echoed Kaepernick’s message, most notably in 2017 when teams all over the league knelt in response to President Trump criticizing Kaepernick:
Devin McCourty talked about why some of his teammates took a knee during the national anthem. pic.twitter.com/h9LJdSp1QO
— NESN (@NESN) September 24, 2017
“We hate that people are going to see it that we don’t respect the military, the men and women that are braver than us that go and put their life on the line,” New England’s Devin McCourty said, “but we just wanted to send a message of unity and being together, and not standing for the disrespect.”
Julius Peppers, then of Carolina, offered a similar message:
“I want to get one thing clear,” Peppers said. “This was not about disrespecting the military, disrespecting the flag, police, first responders, none of that.”
The Seattle Seahawks made a statement as a full team:
“We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country,” the statement read. “Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms.”
And on and on. Now, nearly three years later, Drew Brees fanned the “anti-flag” protests on Wednesday, and then tried to snuff them out Friday.
“This is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been,” Brees wrote in an Instagram statement. “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities. We did this back in 2017, and regretfully I brought it back with my comments this week. We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform.”
Shortly afterward, the NFL came out with its own statement, repudiating its own prior stance and clearing away any realistic contention that the protests were about the flag or the military.
“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” Goodell said Friday night. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest.”
It literally could not be any clearer than that.
In the end, though, Carson’s quote is another example of the goalposts continuing to move. Even if Kaepernick were to quote Carson verbatim, that wouldn’t “solve the problem.” He would draw heat from critics for the way he said it, the clothes he wore while he spoke, the way his hair or his expression looked.
Kaepernick’s protest continues, only now he’s got some powerful allies saying they’re on his side.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from Yahoo Sports: