When Donald Trump started to use Colin Kaepernick as his own personal Willie Horton, the message of taking that knee immediately morphed into something else. No longer, in the debates and discussions pinging from CNN to sports radio, was the debate about racial inequity and police violence. Now it was about the flag, the troops, and racial demonization.
Yet as Trump's attacks on black dissenters became more shrill, with a series of tweets and calls for players to be fired ("Get that son-of-a-bitch off the field"), as well as a clumsily choreographed stunt involving Vice President Mike Pence's walking out of a game in Indianapolis after players knelt for the anthem, something remarkable happened. Like a clear note breaking through the cacophony, the message has broken through, and most people are actually able to identify why players were taking a knee in the first place.
According to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, that's exactly what has happened. As reporter Ariel Edwards-Levy summarized, "Asked to identify from a list the main reason the players are protesting, a 57 percent majority of Americans surveyed said it was in response to 'police violence.' That's up from 48 percent in a HuffPost/YouGov poll taken in late September."
This flies in the face of much conventional wisdom. We have been led to believe that most people exist in an echo chamber where rightwing talking points ricochet through the mainstream media without examination. Or that all you have to say is "troops," "anthem," and "America," and whoever is trying to make a salient point will be hopelessly backed into a corner.
That this has not happened is due, above all else, to the players themselves. It would have been easy--not to mention tempting--for the players to go tit-for-tat with Trump and use their own mammoth social media followings to simply bash him back. Instead, they have managed to convey, "This is not about Donald Trump. This is about racism. This is about criminal justice. This is about police violence."
And consider what happened after Houston Texans owner (and billionaire Trump backer) Bob McNair referred to players' activism as "the inmates running the prison." Here's what Philadelphia Eagle Malcolm Jenkins said in response:
"Obviously his comments will represent him, but from a player's standpoint, we're focused on our goals, we feel like...