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Ehrlich on Trump and the NFL: Penalties on all sides

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the team's decision to have some players kneel and some lock arm during the national anthem. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

My then 9-year-old sandlot playing son, Drew, was once quoted by a reporter as saying, "Football is life." That about says all you need to know about football and the Ehrlichs. Indeed, the sport was my ticket to life success — a path that Drew (now 18 and a strong safety at Villanova) and 13-year old Josh (a quarterback for Drew's former sandlot team) are eager to follow.

What, then, to make of all the controversy, of athletes kneeling during the national anthem and the emotional response of the fans who have made the sport America's favorite? It seems everyone wants to add their two cents to the discussion. Here are mine.

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Most will recall that the foundation for the anthem kneeling exercise was Colin Kaepernick's social justice protest regarding racial inequality and especially police brutality directed at African Americans. (Some will also recall the cop/pig socks he wore at practice, just in case you did not know how the young quarterback views our men and women in blue.) Of course, the evidence is far from settled regarding this favorite progressive narrative. In fact, the raw data do not support a systematic police campaign to murder African Americans. But why let facts get in the way of a progressive political agenda intended to fuel division and civil unrest?

Of course, there are instances of police brutality and African American victims; in some of these cases the defendant policemen have wrongfully escaped punishment. Here, issues of police negligence are real — as are the tensions in many black communities where police relations are always tenuous. In other cases, such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the facts do not support the indictment. Still, some continue to perpetuate the unsupported storylines. Such is life in the race industry — no relation to the praiseworthy civil rights movement that will forever be led by Rev. Martin Luther King and his genuinely wonderful dream.

The Kaepernick-induced wounds were still bleeding when the president chipped in with his incendiary wish that NFL owners "fire" those "sons of b-----s" who chose to kneel. That in turn generated further response last weekend when many more players joined in the kneeling. A portion of our football-loving nation interpreted this as an exercise in protected political speech in the great American tradition; others viewed it as spoiled millionaire athletes degrading the flag and country — and on an international stage to boot (see Jaguars/Ravens in London). The irony of U.S. citizens kneeling for the anthem while standing for "God Save the Queen" (in a country once known for its empire) was not lost on many observers. All of which requires me to throw a flag on all three parties.

First, I along with many Republicans, was sometimes critical of President Barack Obama's habit of opining on issues large — but also small. I repeat my criticism herein: President Donald Trump is on the precipice of a historic tax reform that could jumpstart economic growth missing for the last decade. He is also engaged in a war of words with an unstable, saber-rattling nuclear dictator in North Korea — and all the while dealing with our federal government's response to the devastating natural disasters that have hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. He (and we) do not need the added drama of the NFL clumsily scrambling to protect its brand.

Fifteen yards must also be assessed against the players. I understand their displeasure at being targeted by a polarizing president, but few in America enjoy unlimited freedom of expression in the workplace. Accordingly, those who insist on making political statements "at the office" should not be surprised at the emotional responses that ensue. One more thing: many would feel better about the player protesters if they had either done something to stop the killing of so many innocent people in our poorest neighborhoods or shown appropriate empathy for the families of fallen police officers — our first-line of defense when riots erupt and cities burn.

A game misconduct penalty also goes to the NFL. They have allowed the player protests on the field to (no pun intended) trump the game. It is a league that seems more interested in the length of a player's sock than the fact that millions of its customers are upset with what they perceive as disrespect for a country that has made so many owners and players wealthy beyond their wildest expectations. It is also a league more than mildly inconsistent on speech. Recall last year's attempt by the Cowboys to wear a helmet decal in support of Dallas police after the murder of five officers. (Ironically, the decal read "Arm In Arm.") The NFL denied the request.

A final word on race, or more specifically, the terrible pejorative "racist," for my friends on the progressive left. The little boy who cried wolf has nothing on you. The record speaks for itself: welfare reform — "racist!" ; charter schools — "racist!"; photo ID at the polls — "racist!"; Western civilization — "racist!"; opposition to a $15 minimum wage — "racist!"; immigration enforcement — "racist!"; a border wall — "racist!"; English as our official language — "racist!" Thanks to you, people of good will but opposing viewpoints now tend to shut down — who needs the abuse? Thanks to you, a once overwhelmingly powerful accusation has lost its impact. You will only have yourselves to blame when real racism rears its ugly head — and people just yawn.

Things are now spiraling out of control. NFL TV ratings are down. Stadium attendance is down. Jersey/season ticket burnings on social media are regular occurrences around the country. Damage control is in full swing — but may be too little too late. Some players are backing down; others are doubling down. Many, no doubt, wish the entire thing would just go away.

Here's an idea. The league and Players Association agree to fund and host interactive gatherings of police and kids from the poorest of neighborhoods on a regular basis. Maybe even fund new Police Athletic Leagues for young people born into deep poverty. Such action would lower the temperature. Encourage interaction. Give voice to legitimate community concerns. Humanize the police. It's worth a try. Oh, and everybody stands for the anthem. Like it or not, it represents the perfect vision of an imperfect people.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is the former governor of Maryland. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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