VIDEO: As Elections Approach, NFL Protests Are On These Texans' Minds By weighing in on the NFL protests, President Trump transformed football fields across America into the front lines of a culture war. Three Texans explain how the debate will inform their votes.
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VIDEO: As Elections Approach, NFL Protests Are On These Texans' Minds

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VIDEO: As Elections Approach, NFL Protests Are On These Texans' Minds

VIDEO: As Elections Approach, NFL Protests Are On These Texans' Minds

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


President Trump wants next week's midterm elections to be about him - in fact, he has said as much.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I'm not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket because this is also a referendum about me.

GREENE: But this is also a vote about you. At the end of the day, Politics is Personal. And that's what we've called our series this week. We've been traveling to see how some of the biggest stories of the last couple years have played out in communities and in lives and how those stories could sway votes. Yesterday, we visited a town that was hit by steel tariffs. And today - and I should warn you, you're going to hear some language that may offend you - we are entering the culture wars.


TRUMP: You have to stand proudly for the national anthem.

They have to respect our flag. And they have to respect our country.

I said, get that son of a bitch off the field right now - out. He's fired.


TRUMP: He's fired.

GREENE: Those protests during the national anthem have been discussed and debated at dinner tables, in churches, in office lunchrooms, at bars. But all of that was from the sidelines. The community we are visiting today lived it.

RONNIE MITCHEM: Who would ever think somebody would even care what happened on a field down in Texas, a football field? Obviously a lot of people.

GREENE: This is Ronnie Mitchem. He runs a roadside church in Crosby, a town outside Houston. His passions include God, country and football.

MITCHEM: I love football, love coaching. I had a coach who taught me as a young man, as a Christian, you know, how important football can be used to help teach Christianity, purpose, desire, respect and commitment.

GREENE: And Mitchem has been teaching those things for the last six years. He coached the Sharks, a team for home-schooled students. The team was small but proud.

MITCHEM: So until last year, everything was really good.

GREENE: Last year - it was the height of the NFL protests, and Mitchem had warned his players that if they wanted to protest, they could do it any time, just not during the national anthem at their games.

MITCHEM: You know, the issue with the kneeling is that it's disrespectful to those men and women who serve. First of all, disrespect to your country because you live in the greatest country on the face of the earth. You're blessed already to be born an American. So you've got a blessing. And I said then, you're looking at these men who have died, give everything for you and sacrificed. They didn't have a life. They were 18 years old just like some of you, and they died on a beach somewhere, never had the privilege to have a wife or kid or family. Also, because it seemed to be about color to some extent and race. I said, you know, there were white men who fought for the flag who fought to free slaves. So when everybody wants to get you in this debate, understand there were men who died who were white to free slaves. So you know, we're not going to do this.

GREENE: But two of Mitchem's players, both African-American, defied him. As the national anthem was playing before a game, Mitchem peered over and he saw one of his players kneeling and another with his fist in the air.

MITCHEM: You know, it was probably one of the - I know to other people it doesn't seem much, but to me, it was just one of the hardest moments of my life. It broke my heart that they did that because I thought we had an agreement.

GREENE: Mitchem acted immediately. He kicked the two players off the team right there before the game. One of their moms, Rhonda Brady told ABC13 in Houston that she was appalled.


RHONDA BRADY: He has like a slave master mentality, you know, if you were to go back to that when, you know, they wanted to tell us, this is what you're going to do and this is how you do it. And if we didn't comply, then we were beaten, whooped or even possibly killed.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tonight - reaction from the community divided.

MITCHEM: I told the whole team exactly what would happen if they did kneel. They knew the rules.

GREENE: Let me ask you a couple of difficult questions about this. You said that you have taught these young men respect and that that's so important to you. These two players have talked about that they wanted to join a movement to speak out about how African-Americans are treated in this country. Wouldn't it be the ultimate show of respect to them for you to put your personal views about flag and country, as strong as they are, aside to let them do something that is so important to them?

MITCHEM: Not when it comes to disrespecting my country, no. I find it offensive. I love those two boys, but if they love me in return and showed respect, I have rules. Believe me. I've laid at bed at night because I love them boys. I'm the one that's cried the tears because of all the hate mail and the bitterness and the misunderstanding.

GREENE: Yeah, the backlash has been intense. Someone even fired a bullet through the sign at Mitchem's church. His players were scared to sign up for another season, and he suspended the football program. We know how important football is to him, but not as important as country and God. Those are things he is ready to fight to protect, and he sees President Trump doing the same thing.

MITCHEM: I believe that a lot of what people don't realize is that, as Christians, we see the globalists and we see President Trump as a nationalist. I'm a nationalist because I believe in my country.

GREENE: I'm just wondering if you have a bullet hole in your church sign because this issue has become so prominent in the national political conversation.

MITCHEM: Hell, I think it's just sign of the times. I think a country can only reject God so long until they begin to start falling apart at the seams.

JOHN BARRETT: Things are going to change. They're going to change. They have no choice.

GREENE: A single highway divides Mitchem's town of Crosby, which is largely white, and the town of Barrett, Texas, which is largely black. And that is where we met John Barrett, the great grandson of the freed slave who founded this community. John Barrett maintains the original family estate, the cemetery, as well as the long fight against injustice. We came to visit him because we had seen his Facebook posts supporting Colin Kaepernick. Though Barrett thinks the quarterback could have done even more.

BARRETT: To be completely honest about it, I have an issue with him taking a knee. The knee is submissive. There's nothing submissive about this. He should stand with his fist in the air.

GREENE: Like, Barrett said, people did during the civil rights movement. Barrett has lived through angry, divisive times, but he says none quite like this.

BARRETT: I'm 50-plus. I've never seen candidates for public office publicly make statements that are teetering on the lines of racism. And it's OK to do.

GREENE: In other words, Barrett sees our country in a moment, just like Ronnie Mitchem, who said this can't go on. These men have many differences, but both are looking to the same man to do something right now. John Barrett said there's potential for this moment to be history-making.

The history-making, I mean, you're saying this had to happen.


GREENE: And are you saying that racism that still exists in our country needed to be exposed?

BARRETT: And our president couldn't have done a better job. I commend him for it. He pulled the cover off all of it. I thank him.

GREENE: Why do you thank him?

BARRETT: He exposed it.

GREENE: Why did it need to be exposed?

BARRETT: People of color have been saying they've been mistreated for years and people dismiss it. Oh, you're pulling the race card. Oh, that's really not happening. Oh, this - oh, that. Well, it did.

GREENE: So is two years enough and now it's time to move on to the next phase of what you're talking about, or do you want Trump to keep...

BARRETT: No, I don't want the stirring to continue at all. Now that he's done it and shown it, he needs to become a uniter.

GREENE: Do you see that happening?

BARRETT: He could do it.

GREENE: Do you see Donald Trump doing it?

BARRETT: I would like for him to do it. That would be a wonderful thing. I would love to see him become a uniter now. He's shown us, now fix us. Ultimately, he can bring us together. He can be inclusive. He can fix this.

GREENE: And if you see Trump doing the kinds of things you're talking about in the next two years, could you see supporting him in...


GREENE: What if you're wrong?

BARRETT: You mean, what if he's a blatant racist? What if he's truly a blatant racist? He says he's not, but then they all do. But at the same time, God will deal with him, won't he? He'll be dealt with by God.


GREENE: You really can't visit Texas during football season without actually spending a Friday night right here. I was in the stands at a high school game with India Landry. So if you don't live in Texas, Friday Night Lights is like such a cool thing to imagine - being here on like a beautiful Friday in a football stadium.

INDIA LANDRY: Yes, it is.

GREENE: If you live in Texas, is it like a cool thing too?

LANDRY: Yeah, this is what it is.

GREENE: What's special about it?

LANDRY: Special about it - it's where everybody meets up at all at once.

GREENE: India, who's 18 years old was wearing a fresh pair of Nikes and a Colin Kaepernick jersey, honoring the athlete who inspired her recent protest. It was at her high school one morning. As the class rose to say the Pledge of Allegiance, India stayed in her seat. She was sent to the principal's office, where she says a secretary looked at her and said, this isn't the NFL. India was sent home. Her mom has since sued the school district, and she has taken India out of school for now. Still, India told me at the game that night that she has no regrets.

So no one kneeled tonight. What do you think of that?

LANDRY: I would kneel.

GREENE: You would kneel if you were out there? Are you disappointed if none of them kneel?

LANDRY: Disappointed? No. I just wish they had a better understanding of it.

GREENE: What do you mean?

LANDRY: Meaning a lot of them don't know that what they're standing for is for injustice, actually.

GREENE: Do you feel a connection to football players who...

LANDRY: Who kneel?


LANDRY: Yeah, I do. This is basically what I'm doing but in the classroom.

GREENE: Whatever history is made or not in this political moment, India Landry will be making history of her own this Tuesday. She'll be coming off the sidelines to vote for the very first time.

LANDRY: I remember being younger. I was like, I wish I could vote. And now I'm able to. Matters most now probably more than ever.


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