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In Louisiana, NFL Anthem Protests Threaten Saints' Tax Breaks


President Trump has kept attention on the NFL this year. He's criticized players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick started this protest last season and has not been signed by any team this year. Trump says the NFL should fire players who refuse to stand. In Louisiana, this racially charged debate has prompted boycotts, a lawsuit and calls for the New Orleans Saints to lose their state tax breaks, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Nearly 50 big-screen TVs line the walls at Sarita's Grill in Denham Springs, La.

ERIN HAMES: Whoo (laughter).

ELLIOTT: Bartender Erin Hames whirls around the restaurant on a Monday evening, remote control in hand.

HAMES: I just had to run and change some of the TV channels because they had the NFL game on the ESPN Spanish channel.

ELLIOTT: So now the TVs are turned to golf, pro wrestling and The Weather Channel, but never the NFL, says manager Tony Melara. The restaurant is boycotting pro football in response to player protests during the national anthem.

TONY MELARA: It saddened me. They get paid to entertain us and play a good game. Instead they want to show something else.

ELLIOTT: Melara says the suburban Baton Rouge restaurant lost some business at first. People in Louisiana take their football seriously. But Melara says they've also picked up new customers who support the boycott. Louisiana's attorney general, Jeff Landry, brought by an American flag that now hangs over the New Orleans Saints schedule that was posted in the bar. Several Saints players sat during the national anthem early in the season, but since the team has knelt in unity before the anthem and then stood for the song. The protests on the field send the wrong message, says Melara, an immigrant from El Salvador.

MELARA: We respect the flag. We stand. And we pledge allegiance. They make a lot more money than we do. Like, why do it then? They're going at it the wrong way. That's all.

ELLIOTT: In Louisiana, the boycotts are coming from both sides. At a cafe in Baton Rouge, publisher and activist Gary Chambers says he hasn't watched a game since last season in solidarity with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

GARY CHAMBERS: This man took a knee and flipped America upside down.

ELLIOTT: Chambers and local businessman Geno McLaughlin say the football players are giving voice to what African-Americans have been fighting in communities all around the country, including Baton Rouge, where the two men have been active in local protests. The city gained national attention after the 2016 killing of Alton Sterling, a black man shot to death by police. The city was also the site of an ambush that killed three officers. McLaughlin says that informs the discussion about the flag here.

GENO MCLAUGHLIN: When I see the red stripes, I also see bloodstains, right?

ELLIOTT: McLaughlin says what patriotism means depends on your experience as an American.

MCLAUGHLIN: For me and for many black people - and I think this is just a hard conversation that just needs to be had or a truth that needs to be told. We don't feel the same way about the players, about the flag, that you might, right? Is it that I hate the country? No. I built this country - not me personally, but my people, we built this country. So do I love the country - absolutely.

ELLIOTT: Gary Chambers says President Trump's inflammatory public statements and tweets about firing the players send a clear message.

CHAMBERS: And so Trump is basically telling all the other slave owners, get your negroes in check is what I hear.

ELLIOTT: State Representative Ted James of Baton Rouge says he hears the same thing.

TED JAMES: As a black man and as a black player, you are telling these athletes, go throw that ball, catch that ball, run that ball, tackle that quarterback, but you dare not say a word. And that's a plantation mentality.

ELLIOTT: James says Baton Rouge did some tough racial reconciliation work in the aftermath of the Sterling and police killings. He says now this debate amplifies old divides. James, a Democrat, is preparing for a fight when the Louisiana Legislature convenes next year because some of his Republican colleagues say they'll work to remove tax breaks for the New Orleans Saints NFL franchise.

JAMES: This is not a conversation about Saints players being political. This is a conversation about race.

ELLIOTT: Republican State Representative Kenny Havard of St. Francisville is proposing an amendment to strip any state funding that benefits the Saints, including free rental of the venue where they play, the Superdome.

KENNY HAVARD: We're paying the Saints a lot of money to entertain us, not to get off in the weeds of political discourse. Now, they can do that, but do it on their own time.

ELLIOTT: Removing the team's tax breaks has had bipartisan support in the past, Havard says, but now is being perceived as a racial issue.

HAVARD: I'm perfectly willing and ready to have the race relations talk if that's what they want to do because I'm tired of - you know, look. Slavery was however long ago. And it was a horrible thing. And no one should have to go through that. But it's time that we move on as a nation.

ELLIOTT: Havard says institutional barriers to equal opportunity are gone and rejects the notion of an unjust society. For him, the debate over standing for the national anthem is not about how police treat black suspects, but a question of doing what's right.

HAVARD: When I see a lady coming, I open the door. When I, you know, sit at the table, I take my hat off. When the national anthem plays, I stand. And those are things that are taught to you by family and parents. And that's the real issue, is the breakdown of the family unit because there's no dad in the home to pop them upside the head - son, you stand up when the national anthem - and pull your pants up. I'm sorry if it hurts people's feelings, but that's just the way it is.

ELLIOTT: There will be people who hear you say that and think that that's racist.

HAVARD: Well, it's not. And I'm not trying to be racist. It's not for me. It really isn't. It's about having the conversation. And somebody needs to start having the conversation.

ELLIOTT: Havard will get his debate when the Louisiana Legislature convenes in March. The issue is also now in the courts. Just last week, a Saints season ticket holder sued the team for a refund, claiming he's been damaged by players using football games as a platform for protest. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.