MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We want to turn now to football, or is it politics? Or is it both? We're talking about an issue that you cannot have escaped today if you have tapped into the news at all. Specifically, we're talking about football players kneeling or linking arms during the national anthem despite, or perhaps because, of President Trump's comments. To recap - at what was supposed to have been a rally to support the candidacy of Senate candidate Luther Strange in Alabama on Friday, Trump called on NFL owners to get players off the field if they continue to kneel during the national anthem, a protest started by Colin Kaepernick last year. On Friday, the president said the following, and here's where I need to say that this is language we would not normally air, but we think in this case, it merits it so you can understand the context here. Here it is.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say, get that son of a bitch off the field right now? Out. He's fired. He's fired.
MARTIN: The president has continued to push the point all weekend on Twitter, for example, tweeting - if a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our great American flag or country and should stand for the national anthem, if not, you're fired. That's in all-caps. Find something else to do. Now, the president's rhetoric seems to have had the opposite effect. At games across the country today, at least a hundred players so far knelt or sat in protest. At the Eagles and Jaguars games, the team owners also linked arms with players. And all but one of the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the locker room until the anthem was over.
Joining us to talk about all of this, Kevin Blackistone. He is a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. He's a frequent ESPN commentator. Kevin, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you.
MARTIN: Also on the phone with us is Robert Costa, national political reporter with The Washington Post, somebody who's had many interviews with President Trump. Robert, thank you so much for joining us once again.
ROBERT COSTA: Great to be with you.
MARTIN: So, Kevin, walk me through the timeline, if you would, and the genesis of this so-called take-a-knee movement. Did this really start with Colin Kaepernick, and why has it spread to other players?
BLACKISTONE: Well, obviously, over a year ago, Colin Kaepernick dropped to a knee thinking of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and the scores of black men who had been on the horrible end of extra-judicial killings in this country. But what you just saw happen today is an exact result of what Donald Trump tweeted out. And this has now morphed into a protest over First Amendment speech rights. And it had morphed before that into a fair employment protest because Colin Kaepernick had yet to find employment in the NFL despite the fact that his resume and accomplishments were much better than many of the 30 quarterbacks who were free agents and had found work in this league since the time that he went into free agency. So this reaction is directly to Donald Trump.
MARTIN: So, Robert, I'm not asking you to speak for the president. I am asking you to give us your perspective, knowing that you've interviewed him many times, on why you think the president is picking this fight and why now. I'm also wondering whether these attacks on the NFL seem to be hurting him or helping him or having no effect.
COSTA: As the president left Bedminster, N.J., today to fly back to Washington, he told reporters that these remarks and this controversy in his view is not racially charged. But, of course, there are racial charges to this entire debate. And this is something that has really haunted President Trump as a candidate, now as president - the way he handled the tragedy in Charlottesville, the way he is now attacking players in the NFL, many of them who are African-American. The reason for the timing here is because he loves to wade into cultural debate, not in the traditional Republican way of talking about morality, but wading into the popular culture, having an opinion. He did this for years when he was a reality show host. He's doing it now again.
MARTIN: Kevin, do you want to talk a little bit more about why there are people who think there is a racial subtext here?
BLACKISTONE: Sure. Because, as Robert just mentioned or alluded to, basically, two-thirds of the NFL - black players. The players who have been dropping to a knee, thrusting a fist into the air are black players. The language that was used in Alabama by President Trump word were - was dog-whistle language. When you talk about those people and our heritage, that's dog-whistle politics.
I said this in an editorial - video editorial in The Washington Post last November that the players and teams that went to the White House to celebrate championships, invited there, a tradition that has gone on for several decades, should be ended with Donald Trump in the White House because his views are diametrically opposed to what we have been told sports are about in this country, that it is a field of meritocracy where everyone is accepted based on their skills, their talent level. And what he has done so far has not supported that idea.
MARTIN: So, Robert, a final comment from you, if we can. You know, when the president said earlier that there were fine people on both sides of the Charlottesville protests when white supremacists were shouting anti-Semitic and racist slogans, and yet, you know, he's offended that these black players have been silently protesting. He seemed to waver at a point about whether that was the right thing to say, walked it back and then kind of pushed forward. Thoughts about how he's going to respond to even criticism from friends of his like the Patriots owner, Robert Kraft?
COSTA: The president has shown real stubbornness when it comes to advice from his aides who have waved him off from confronting Kim Jong Un on North Korea and waved them off privately, I'm told, from engaging in this kind of high drama with major American sports figures. This is so driven by him, one of his confidants tells me. This is who President Trump is, someone who would rather talk about sports and the flags and talk about nationalism and pop culture than any kind of policy.
MARTIN: That's Robert Costa. He's national political reporter with The Washington Post. Kevin Blackistone is an ESPN commentator and professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
COSTA: Thank you.
BLACKISTONE: Thank you.
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