NFL owners should be flagged for excessive shrewdness. They've managed to obfuscate a legitimate protest against police brutality that had, at least briefly, heightened the nation's consciousness about a serious issue.

Colin Kaepernick started it last season by quietly taking a knee during the National Anthem. His reward was being blacklisted by the NFL, even as several teams turned to clearly less capable quarterbacks.

Then, a few weeks ago, Donald Trump got into the act, slamming NFL players who would dare join the protest, calling them SOBs who should be fired. That prompted more players to step up. But what began as a clear cut protest quickly became a meaningless tangle of causes and emotions.

Were the players supporting Kaepernick? Opposing police brutality? Protesting the president's remarks? Or, perhaps just saying, "We all love football"? It wasn't clear.

Seizing the moment, Trump tweeted that locking arms is good, while kneeling is bad.

Presto change-o. Overnight we had owners and players standing arm-in-arm on the sidelines during the National Anthem. Even college and high school athletes joined in this sideshow of "solidarity." Solidarity over what? Nothing.

NFL owners only embrace solidarity - alternately, "unity" - when it comes to: (a) seeking high TV ratings and stadium attendance, (b) supporting Donald Trump, as many owners did through campaign contributions, (c) keeping Kaepernick out of the league, and (d) avoiding negative publicity that might hurt the NFL brand.

By Week 4, waves of protest had shifted to waves of confusion. Some teams took a knee briefly before the song, then stood as it was played, apparently seeking to separate their protest from what many fans wrongly perceived as disrespect for country and flag.

The NFL has long sought to make football synonymous with patriotism, using excessive pre-game and half-time ceremonies to link the nation and its military with games on the field. Before the Steelers and Ravens played Oct. 1, the stadium announcer in Baltimore read this NFL script: "Please rise for the National Anthem and pray that we embrace kindness and unity among all Americans."

At that point, the scoreboard should have read: Touchdown for Team Trump!

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Across the nation there are reports of high school players, backed by their coaches, linking arms in unity. Typical was a coach in Massachusetts, who explained that football is a unifying sport and uniting, with arms linked, is a way to honor America.

What a shame that students are being dragged through a mind-field of tortured emotions.

America should be honored. Police brutality should be protested. Football is a dangerous sport, especially at the high school level. Any attempt to conflate these serious issues is misguided.

Colin Kaepernick is a genuine hero for sacrificing his career to conduct a silent, respectful protest of police brutality against minorities. The fact that his cause can be so shrewdly diffused by master manipulators like the NFL and President Trump only confirms that Kaep's protest was necessary in the first place.

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