The co-host of NBC Sunday Night Football, Mike Tirico, described this past Sunday as “an NFL day the likes of which we have never seen before.” Over 130 NFL players took a knee or sat during the national anthem during the league’s first nine games, and hundreds more, including coaches and owners, stood with linked arms. Though Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016, controversy was sparked by Donald Trump this week when he called Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” and said the NFL should fire players who refuse to stand during the national anthem. Trump used his platform to declare that certain speech is legitimate while other speech is disrespectful, which moved us away from having a meaningful discussion on unjust policing to debating the definition of patriotism.
We have now found ourselves wrapped up in a national referendum on race, patriotism and what it means to be a good American. As always, there are two competing camps. On the one hand, some characterize the decision of NFL players to protest in this way as disrespectful, disloyal, inappropriate and unpatriotic. They support the President's latest intervention on social media and are using the hashtag #BoycottNFL. On the other hand, many are rushing to the defence and support of athletes like Kaepernick. They recognize the importance of this act of civil disobedience and the necessity to spark a nationwide conversation on racial injustice.
Athletes are Humans
First and foremost, we need to remember that a football player is so much more than just an athlete. That is their job, not their identity. A profession is what someone does to bring home a paycheque. A person can change their profession, but they can’t change their race, sexual orientation, ability, etc.
The athletes taking a knee are telling the world that they won’t just “shut up and play,” as they are so often told. They’re real people with real opinions and their identities extend beyond sports entertainment. To say that they ‘chose to play football’ is misguided, as if to suggest that their decision to play a sport professionally precludes them from expressing an opinion or becoming politically active. It is neither fair nor realistic to pigeon hole people in these boxes.
Furthermore, to discuss the salary of these athletes distracts from the issue at hand. To say, “athletes are paid mightily” is irrelevant. How does someone’s income dictate whether they are allowed to be upset about racial injustice? No matter how rich you are, you’re still black. No matter how famous you are, you’re still a part of an oppressed minority.
Taking a Knee is not ‘Protesting the Flag’
The bottom line is that refusing to stand for the anthem and the flag does not mean these athletes are “protesting the flag.” As the NYPD Sargent Edwin Raymond said, “thinking NFL players are protesting the flag is like thinking Rosa Parks was protesting public transportation.” This is not about an anthem, a flag, or a football game. This is about a racist system that is consistently failing a marginalized community. It is about the unjust policing of black bodies. We know this is their concern because the athletes have told us.
We cannot determine what their protest is based on our own perceptions. Since 2016, Kaepernick has been explicit in his reasons for refusing to stand for the anthem. Racial injustice. He has never once mentioned the military or veterans or the flag.
This is Valid Civil Disobedience
Many people have also rejected the form of expression that Kaepernick has used in protesting America’s racial injustice. Those who reject #TakeAKnee have said, ‘causing drama doesn’t make a difference’ and ‘taking a knee is not greatness.’ They argue that ‘protesting the flag and national anthem will not fix problems plaguing the USA, but rather real actions will fix the issues.’
In the same vein as Rosa Parks sitting in the back of the bus, the ‘drama’ Kaepernick is causing stems from a legitimate act of civil disobedience. ‘Real actions’ are not just marching in the street or writing letters to Parliament. ‘Real actions’ are those which spark a conversation. And that is one thing none of us can deny - #TakeAKnee has sparked a nationwide discussion on race, patriotism and protest. In every corner of the internet, in coffee shops and classrooms, everyone is talking about racism in the US. This is because one athlete took a knee to take a stand. Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, this is legitimate civil disobedience.
Forcing Conformity Goes Against the Constitution
Just because your favourite player doesn’t espouse the same views as you doesn’t mean you can then declare that their actions are unacceptable or unprofessional. As an American, you can disagree with someone’s views, but you do not have the right to dictate the manner in which someone expresses those views.
Stop saying that these athletes deserve to be fired. Firing a player because he takes a knee goes against the American Constitution. The first amendment governs one's right to sit, stand, sing or juggle during the national anthem. They are not spewing hate, they are resisting an oppressive paradigm. They are not the aggressors, they are responding to aggression.
In the US, patriotism has been reduced to bumper stickers, eagles and flags. In reality, patriotism is so much more. It is building a country everyone can be proud of, it is working to ensure that the state adequately serves all its citizens. Patriotism is not forcing everyone to stand and salute the flag. Fascism demands people to bow to the country, while democracy gives people the right to protest injustices.
In West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette, examining the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the American flag, the court decided the state could not compel children to salute the flag. Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “[t]o believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”
Think About what your Opposition Means
A few years ago no teams stood for the national anthem in the NFL. All players and coaches stayed in the locker room or sat on the sidelines. It was only in 2009, when the US wanted to boost military recruitment, that standing for the anthem before NFL games became routine. If this was really about disrespecting the anthem, people would have spoken up a long time ago. In reality, people are bringing up the flag and anthem as a way to divert the conversation; to try to swing the moral compass in their direction.
To say that ‘taking a knee means disrespecting the anthem’ is to reframe #TakeAKnee as a discussion of the anthem and the flag and the military, while completely ignoring the issues that those who kneel have explicitly said they are protesting. These athletes, these Americans, have told us that they are protesting racial injustice. They are using their platform to protest police brutality and to give a voice to the Black community.
Your opposition to #TakeAKnee signifies that you think the idea or symbolism of disrespecting veterans is more offensive than actual and documented oppression of black people.
This Backlash is Laced with White Supremacy
The backlash to this act of civil disobedience is more than a cop out or the sidestepping of an issue, it is a manifestation of white supremacy. This outrage has erupted because, as Zeba Blay writes, “[t]o be black and to be conscious and to have a voice flies in the face of white supremacy.”
Kaepernick and others have been condemned for protesting on the field because ‘it isn’t the right venue.’ Then what is? There has never been a form or venue of protest for which Black people haven’t been condemned. When Martin Luther King Jr. protested injustice, he too was met with dissent. People said he was “causing trouble” and was an "outside agitator." When black people march in the streets they are ‘rioters and looters,’ and when they take a knee on a field they are ‘ungrateful and unpatriotic.’
But what or to whom, exactly, are successful black people ‘disrespecting’ when they protest? Are their paycheques or championship rings not something they earned from hard work? Black people who speak up are ‘being ungrateful’ of and ‘disrespecting’ white America. Zeba Blay writes that the success of black people, “is not earned, but rather given by white kingmakers with the implicit understanding that in return for their success, they (the athletes, actors, singers, dancers, artists, and so on) must pretend that racism, and indeed race, does not factor into their identities at all."
America is a country in which neo-Nazis are given the right to march freely through a city, but it is not acceptable for black people to speak out against persecution and injustice. And at the heart of this double standard lies the real issue today. This issue isn’t about freedom of speech or patriotism, but about white supremacy and the silencing of black protest, black culture and black bodies.
Kaepernick made his controversial views known: Black people should not be shot on sight by police officers who face no consequences and black people should have the same rights and as white people. The fact that these views are considered controversial in the first place illustrates the inability of Americans to a) acknowledge the nation’s racial hierarchy and to b) stop defending its systemic failings.
This Movement was Built Around Respect
These athletes – Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James Richard Sherman and many others - refuse to accept the abuse of black people by the state. These athletes are not doing anything wrong. They are mad; mad at a system that treats their people as lesser. They have every right to express this anger, frustration and disapproval. And contrary to popular belief, they are expressing this in a very respectful way.
As Sarah Kendzior from the Globe & Mail wrote, “Traditionally, when an athlete takes a knee, he does so in acknowledgment of a wounded player. Colin Kaepernick takes the knee during the national anthem in acknowledgment of wounded citizens. He demands, rightly, that Americans do better.”
Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers said, “I approached Colin [Kaepernick] the Saturday before our next game to discuss how I could get involved with the cause but also how we could make a more powerful and positive impact on the social justice movement…We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
Colin Kaepernick is a brave social activist. He should be celebrated for his courage to stand up to racism in America. Yet, today he is unemployed and portrayed as a radical “son of a bitch” who is ungrateful and disrespectful. If this doesn’t illustrate that the US refuses to acknowledge its white supremacy, what will?