Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Given the investment that cities make into professional sports franchises, team owners do not have the luxury of ignoring the politics of their environs.
If North Korea wasn’t enough, Donald Trump decided to wage war over the weekend with the NFL and the NBA over players who’ve been making political statements—kneeling during the National Anthem in the NFL or refusing to visit the White House, as the NBA World Champions the Golden State Warriors decided to do.
Trump further escalated the confrontation this morning with a shout-out to the NASCAR auto racing league for not putting “up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag,” (though don’t tell Dale Jr.) and a tweet claiming that the #TakeAKnee protest movement, which was started in 2016 by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, has “nothing to do with race”—though it absolutely has to do with racism.
The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2017
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2017 NHL champions, released a statement yesterday confirming that the team would visit the White House, as has been a recent tradition for professional hockey championship teams. (The Penguins were the first Stanley Cup champion to visit the White House in 1991.) Said the Penguins:
The Pittsburgh Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House. We attended White House ceremonies after previous championships—touring the historic building and visiting briefly with Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama—and have accepted an invitation to attend again this year.
Any agreement or disagreement with a president’s politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways. However, we very much respect the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit.
This gesture stood out in sharp contrast to the gesture taken by the Steelers, one of three NFL teams that elected not to take the field during the national anthem this past Sunday. Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said this act wasn’t about politics, but given the circumstances of Trump’s tirades about respecting the national anthem, it was certainly seen as political.
The distinction between the Penguins and the Steelers was particularly striking given that both franchises represent a city that has been prominent among the urban areas currently at war with Trump. How much does a professional sports team have to hew to the values of the city that it represents?
Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto certainly has not backed away from dealing with the political and racial issues behind the sports world’s entanglements with the White House. He has been public about his beef with Trump on several issues: Like many mayors, he’s currently challenging the White House’s anti-immigration agenda, and he sharply rebuked Trump when he made his infamous “I represent Pittsburgh not Paris” speech in June.
In comments to the The New York Times, Peduto stressed that “there are two distinct sides that need to have a conversation, not a president who chooses sides.”
UPDATE 9/27: Peduto announced that he would not be accompanying the Pittsburgh Penguins to the White House, as he did last year when they won the NHL Stanley Cup. Speaking on the Steelers not taking the field during the national anthem (which the team now regrets) he said:
I think the team handled it great. It was a no-win situation. They chose to do it in a very Pittsburgh fashion. They met privately. They discussed it as a team. They worked together as one team. They were respectful of those players who would’ve taken a knee. But they were also respectful of Villanueva—Army Ranger, decorated hero, who watched friends die in battle. I think that given the situation where there was really no win, and fully understanding that if one side wins, all sides lose—the Steelers handled it as well as anyone on Sunday.
Trump’s holding up the hockey and NASCAR as sports models makes sense for his agenda: Both sports have fanbases that reflect the kind of mostly white suburban constituencies that voted him into office. However, the Penguins hockey team are not the Allegheny County Penguins, they are the Pittsburgh Penguins: They skate in an arena in the heart of the city, right near downtown. And both the Penguins and the Steelers are supported by hundreds of millions of dollars of Pittsburgh taxpayer money. Which means they should not be insulated from the issues of racism, diversity, inclusion, and public safety that the city of Pittsburgh, from the mayor on down, is currently grappling with.
With that in mind, the actions of the Steelers players over the weekend (or inaction, depending on how it was interpreted) are more in keeping with the values of the city—and also with the history of the franchise itself. The Rooney family, which owns the Steelers, has long been a strong supporter of progressive values, such as diversity. And the character of the team itself is very much in line with that of the city’s: The name “Steelers” comes from the city’s connection to the steel industry that was headquartered there for most of its history. The hardscrabble labor ethic associated with that industry is also heavily embedded in the ethos of both the team and the city.
The Penguins’ name and logo, meanwhile, have a less obvious connection with the character and ethos of the city. (Needless to say, there are no actual penguins in Pittsburgh, except in the zoo.) The hockey team’s decision to obligate itself to Trump by visiting the White House also seems out of sync with the city’s values, especially when other championship teams, like the Golden State Warriors and the University of North Carolina’s basketball teams, have decided not to indulge in the tradition .
Pittsburgh is not the only city with a team at odds with its citizen’s values. One could argue that the Washington Redskins decision to hold on to its racially offensive name while representing a city of massive racial diversity also makes it out of touch with its own host—or at least its mayor, who refuses to say the name. The Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder is one of a many NFL team owners who gave $1 million or more to Trump’s campaign.
Snyder linked arms with players during the anthem on Sunday night but avoided making a specific statement. Other NFL owners among Snyder’s millionaire Trump circle have spoken out directly against the president’s divisive statements, though. Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots and a friend of Trump’s, also condemned his pal, as did Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The Pakistani-born owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Kahn—also a big spender for Trump—took the field with his players Sunday and kneeled. Jacksonville is also one of just a few major cities in America with a Republican mayor. All of these teams represent cities that are grappling with the problems that triggered the NFL kneeling to begin with.
It should be acknowledged that most of the gestures and critiques staged by NFL players this weekend were in response to Trump’s jingoistic rants and calling for kneeling players to get fired. Some were stunting for free speech and, in some cases, to spite a president they disagree with anyway. That shouldn’t be confused with the reason why Colin Kaepernick first took a knee—police brutality against African Americans.
Remember: Kaepernick’s protest predates the Trump era, in early 2016, while he was playing in San Francisco. That setting was appropriate: Across the bridge in Oakland is where police officers shot and killed Oscar Grant, an African American, in 2009 while he was handcuffed. This was one of the first high-profile police killings of an African American in the modern era to trigger citywide protests and riots.
The Grant killing happened just as President Obama took the White House and it pushed both federal and local governments to fix their attention on police violence. Officials at both levels were forced to focus on this matter even more in the ensuing years as the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Natasha McKenna, Alexia Christian, and thousands of African Americans who died in police custody under questionable terms.
Many of the cities where these police killings of African Americans took place are now actively in the process of trying to reform their police departments, to curb that kind of violence. Baltimore, Chicago, and Seattle are all cities that have signed consent decree agreements with the federal government to bring about such reforms. Baltimore and Chicago both had to fight against the Trump administration to defend those reforms.
Given the millions of dollars that city residents invest in teams both as taxpayers and patrons, team owners have an obligation to speak up about the problems in these cities. This is what the Baltimore Orioles COO John Angelos came to understand during the Freddie Gray uprisings, when he said:
My greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle-class and working-class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American's civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.
That’s a courageous stance from a sports executive who seems to understand that a team’s ties to the city goes beyond just naming rights. Any team like the Pittsburgh Penguins that chooses to indulge Trump precisely at a politically tumultuous time like this sends a different message: That its allegiance is not to the city that makes its team possible, but rather to a man who stands for all of the things that the city is standing against.