There are few issues Democratic politicians have been more reluctant to address than the NFL-player protests. “It doesn’t get talked about by candidates and office holders, because no one wants to mess up and have that compromise that ability to win an election or stay in office,” Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat running for the Senate in Texas, told me. “It’s also precisely the thing where if you do not talk about it and don’t have these kind of conversations publicly, it’s never going to get better.”
When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked about an NFL policy requiring all players on the field to stand for the national anthem, she backpedaled away faster than Deion Sanders. “I love the national anthem. I love the flag,” Pelosi told the CNN anchor Chris Cuomo at a televised town hall hosted by the network in May. “And I love the First Amendment, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Other Democratic politicians went with the ol’ disagree-with-the method-but-not-the-message approach. Colin Kaepernick “was right to raise the issue of racial disparity on our streets,” Representative Michael Capuano said in an August debate. “He was wrong the way he raised the issue … It was the way he said it that turned off half of America, which I don’t think is productive.”
And then there’s O’Rourke. In early August, he was asked about the protests at a forum. There isn’t usually much of an upside for white men in O’Rourke’s position to wade into complicated racial issues, much less take a firm stand.
But instead of dodging the question, he tackled it head-on, framing it as a brave protest against police shootings: “Nonviolently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it. That is why they are doing it. And I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place.”
Ted Cruz, the Republican incumbent, quickly pounced, repackaging O’Rourke’s comments as an attack ad. But then something interesting happened. Instead of self-destructing, O’Rourke’s campaign began to gather steam. He gained a national profile, and hauled in a record $38 million over the past three months. He may not win his race against Cruz, but his willingness to say what other Democratic politicians have not has turned him into a hero of a movement that is still looking for champions—and may show other Democratic politicians that there is more to be gained than lost from standing with Black Lives Matter.
What became the signature moment of his campaign started unpromisingly, at a town hall in Houston in August. When O’Rourke was asked about the player protests, it was pretty clear how the questioner wanted him to respond:
I personally come from a family of veterans. You mentioned the football season earlier. I kind of wanted to know how you personally felt about how disrespectful it is to have the NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. I wanted to know if you found that to be disrespectful to our country, to our veterans, and anybody related to that. I find it incredibly frustrating that people seem to be okay with that. I would just like to hear your input.
“I was prepared for and answering questions about the teachers’ retirement system in Texas, about teacher pay, about high-stakes/high-pressure tests, and this question comes up about the national anthem and what my position is on it,” O’Rourke told me. “I wasn’t expecting it. I just did the best that I could. It can be a very tough issue to talk about.”
Over the next four minutes, O’Rourke laid out a passionate case for why the NFL players who chose to protest during the national anthem were very much honoring America. He cited Representative John Lewis and the many African Americans who died in pursuit of civil rights as models of real patriotism. O’Rourke told his audience that the player protests weren’t about disrespecting the flag, but they were an expression of growing frustration with the lack of accountability for police who kill unarmed black people.
NowThis, a digital news outlet, posted a video of the exchange, and it quickly racked up 46 million views on the site’s Facebook page. Celebrities lined up to praise O’Rourke; Ellen DeGeneres invited him onto her show.
But O’Rourke’s answer proved particularly resonant with athletes. LeBron James saluted him. Kaepernick’s mother, Teresa; his girlfriend, Nessa Diab; and his close friend, the Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid—who took a knee alongside Kaepernick when they both played for the San Francisco 49ers—all retweeted the video of O’Rourke’s comments.
“To see [Kaepernick’s protest] and perhaps assume he paid a price for it and that would be the end of the story, and now to see that his courage has been rewarded—not necessarily through a contract, but by his ability to serve as an example for the kind of courage that’s necessary for a democracy to work,” O’Rourke said. “In an age where everything is poll-tested and focus-group driven and packaged and produced and safe for TV, that kind of courage is the exception, not the rule. I’m grateful for what he was willing to do, and grateful that he’s a part of the national conversation.”
And many black athletes are, in turn, grateful for what O’Rourke has done.
“I’m leery in general when it comes to politicians,” said the former Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, who still resides in Houston and who has now twice appeared with O’Rourke on the campaign trail. “I’m not saying it’s his intent, but he had to know saying that was going to be controversial in Texas. The climate we’re in, in general, is that if you take a side on that issue, one side is going to vehemently agree with you and one side will vehemently disagree with you.”
Foster, who hosts a podcast, reached out to both Cruz and O’Rourke. Only O’Rourke responded. “I wanted to meet the man behind all the buzz,” Foster said. “I wanted to know: Is he bullshit?”
The energy of his campaign is not so much about O’Rourke himself, Foster soon learned, as about what he has tapped into—a deep desire among many voters for a politician willing to stand up for their beliefs, instead of apologizing for them.