At a Friday night rally, onetime failed USFL owner and current U.S. president Donald Trump said NFL owners should “fire” players who kneel in protest during the pregame singing of the national anthem. That was the leader of the executive branch urging private businesses to cut ties with employees for exercising a First Amendment right.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh’s view:
Jim Harbaugh on Donald Trump's comments about how anthem-protesters should be fired: "That's ridiculous ... check the Constitution."— Zach Shaw (@_ZachShaw) September 24, 2017
Trump’s comments Friday continued two trends: Going after black figures in sports and sports media, and urging private businesses to make personnel decisions that align with his own worldview.
Trump’s press secretary previously called it a “fireable offense” when ESPN’s Jemele Hill straightforwardly called Trump a "white supremacist.” There might be nothing unconstitutional about a president urging a private business to fire its employees, but it’s still wrong, still chillingly dangerous.
Good on Harbaugh for speaking up against it. So did a bunch of NBA players after Trump “disinvited” the champion Warriors when Stephen Curry said he wouldn’t visit. And so did a bunch of NFL players, whose protests Trump went after directly.
Harbaugh’s undergone a public odyssey on this issue.
When Harbaugh coached the 49ers, he drafted Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and the two went to a Super Bowl together at the end of the 2012 season. After Harbaugh left to coach Michigan, Kaepernick became the face of the NFL’s protest movement. Here’s a full timeline of that protest and the response to it, which includes Kaepernick not having an NFL job this year despite his obvious qualifications.
When Kaepernick first knelt during the anthem during 2016’s preseason, Harbaugh said he didn’t respect his former QB’s “motivation.” He apologized shortly afterward:
I apologize for misspeaking my true sentiments. To clarify, I support Colin's motivation. It's his method of action that I take exception to— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) August 29, 2016
Harbaugh has since praised Kaepernick’s protest and said he could be a “great NFL player” if given the opportunity. Without being inside Harbaugh’s head, it’s impossible to say what’s caused the coach’s public change of heart. But Harbaugh has at least given the impression that he’s absorbed Kaepernick’s message and taken it to heart.
This also isn’t the first time Harbaugh’s gone after Trump.
In February, he took a public stand on another issue:
I hope reports that White House trying to defund Legal Services Corp aren't true. LSC is CRUCIAL to making justice system fair. #LSCmatters— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 28, 2017
The LSC is a public nonprofit organization that seeks to help people afford attorneys who might otherwise not be able to — hopefully putting into practice the constitutionally protected right to legal representation. Harbaugh’s on the LSC’s National Council, and he later explained his interest in the issue to Politico:
I'm an American first and all Americans should care about justice. The idea, as you learn about our legal system, [is] the danger of not being able to have access to justice. From what I can see it's that, if you have money you have access to justice. If you don't, it's becoming increasingly less and less access for low-income Americans and that's the crux of it. I mean, to have a society that has liberty and justice for all, it's right there in the constitution. And LSC is the largest funder of civil legal aid in our nation.
Trump hasn’t stuck to politics, so sports figures shouldn’t stick to sports. Others with Harbaugh’s platform would do well to follow his lead.