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NAACP president on NFL player protests: 'How the narrative changed is amazing'

NAACP President Derrick Johnson believes that NFL players protesting social injustice by kneeling during the national anthem are doing their civic duty, and that much of the criticism of their protests is race-related.

“How the narrative changed is amazing. But living in Mississippi, I recognize people use race and religion to divide,” Johnson said at Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit on Thursday. “So it’s easy to say … ‘These black players are disrespecting the flag. Therefore, they’re the villain.’ When, in fact, they were only raising a concern around aggressive policing where unarmed individuals were being shot.”

President and CEO of NAACP Derrick Johnson speaks at the 2018 Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit at the Times Center on Sept. 20 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

Johnson mentioned a “12-year-old in Ohio. An unarmed woman in Texas. A gentleman here selling cigarettes. Those are the atrocities that they were protesting against: that we need better accountability to ensure that police are actually protecting and serving everyone, and not over policing some.”

‘This is bigger than football’

Starting in the third game of the 2016 preseason, Kaepernick — a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers at the time — sat as the national anthem played before the game began.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he   told NFL Media   at the time. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

After having a conversation with an American veteran,   Kaepernick knelt for the anthem for the rest of the season, to show respect for the military, while nevertheless protesting. Other players followed his lead.

Time Magazine featured Kaepernick on its October 2016 cover. (Photo: TIME)

Johnson, who is also CEO of the NAACP, said that he was glad that Kaepernick and other players decided to “kneel in reverence of the flag,” while also working to get their “social justice message across.” He noted that the criticism of the predominantly black players highlighting similar causes has historically taken on a racial cast .

“[It] is a historic reality that athletes and entertainers leverage their platform to advance social justice causes that affect them, their families, and the community,” he said. “Jack Johnson did it. Jim Brown did it. Of course, Muhammad Ali did it. It is a standard practice.”  When the NFL attempted to fine teams whose players sat or kneeled for the anthem during the 2018 season, the NFL Players Association filed an official grievance. Eventually, the league froze the policy .

Kaepernick, 30, has not played since he entered free agency, after opting out of his contract with the 49ers in March 2017 (although there are indications that he may sign with a team soon). He is currently involved an  arbitration case  against the league, accusing NFL teams of colluding to blackball him, and recently signed an endorsement deal with Nike (NKE).

In early September, Colin Kaepernick tweeted what has turned out to be a highly successful Nike ad campaign.

‘It’s a distraction’

One particularly vocal critic of the NFL player protests has been President Trump. After Nike announced Kaepernick as the face of its campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of its slogan “Just do it,” Trump tweeted that Nike was getting “killed with anger and boycotts.”

However, the company   has sold out of 61% more merchandise since it signed Kaepernick, and its stock is at an all-time high.

NKE is on a tear this year.

Johnson sees Trump’s continued commentary on the NFL player protests as a way to shift attention from the ongoing investigation by Robert Mueller. As a result of the investigation, several people in the president’s orbit have been prosecuted .

“I think he used it as a distraction,” Johnson told Yahoo Finance’s Seana Smith. “I think who we have sitting in the White House,  unfortunately, is the unindicted co-conspirator to a potential crime. …  So at any chance, we see distractive tactics by this administration to move the conversation away from the investigation that’s taking place. I think that’s what’s happening.”

Check out the entire interview with Johnson.

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