On September 1st, 2016, Colin Kaepernick publicly kneeled for the first time. In the coming weeks, more players would follow his lead. Jeremy Lane of the Seattle Seahawks, Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos, and players from the Dolphins, Chiefs, and Patriots would soon follow suit by either taking a knee or raising their fists. Kaepernick explained his protest by saying:
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
His message, along with his point that he is giving a voice to those with no platform, resonated throughout the sports community. Soon Megan Rapinoe, WNBA players, and high school football teams were taking a knee to demonstrate their intolerance of a flag that represents an unequal country. Almost a year later, during Week 3 of the 2017 NFL season, every NFL team protested in one way or another. Several knelt and linked arms while others stayed in the locker room while the National Anthem played. Team owners even joined in on the movement, protesting alongside their players. These protests, however, were not only an opposition to injustice in America but also to President Trump’s backlash against the protests. A few days before the widespread Week 3 protests, at a rally in Alabama, President Trump said general managers should fire those who kneeled. That comment sparked outrage across the NFL and led to the Week 3 demonstrations.
One of the major objections to this protest is that the players are disrespecting the flag and being unpatriotic. This misses Kaepernick’s original point. Kneeling is not a protest against the flag, it is a protest against police brutality against Black people and the lack of accountability that perpetrators of this violence face. It is a way to shine a light on the racism embedded in American life and the injustices African-Americans face in a country that is supposed to uphold equality for all. Conor Friedersdorf writes in The Atlantic, “yet the Founders were not deficient in love of country for lacking the Stars and Stripes.” The fact is that even the Founding Fathers described the qualities of a patriot in the Declaration of Independence years before any flag or National Anthem was created.
Patriotism, then, is not attached to the flag or anthem. It is attached to the values this country was built upon. Singing the National Anthem and saluting the flag does not make you a good patriotic American, just as going to church does not make you a good Catholic. Friedersdorf, writing about the NFL players, continues, “their grievance is that the government is failing to secure the rights of Americans; in particular, it is failing to protect their lives and liberty.” The players are protecting the rights guaranteed to them by the founding documents of their government. The flag is nothing more than a symbol for those rights. If the discrepancy between what has been promised and what is actually taking place becomes great enough, then centuries-old symbols start to lose their meaning and even their relevance.
These players have an unparalleled opportunity to use their enormous platform and bring awareness to the discrimination Black people face in the United States. In full view on national television and with extensive media coverage, Kaepernick’s message has spread and gained attention. The protest has also proven that the NFL and its players are political entities and that sports and politics cannot be separated. Players who protest are utilizing their prominence in a way that makes it impossible to draw the line between professional sports and politics because outside of the field, they are susceptible to the same abuse forced onto their less fortunate peers. President Trump, by characterizing their actions as disrespectful, is trying to work against their enumerated right to a political voice.
The Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The NFL players are doing what this amendment allows, petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. However, they are being threatened with punishment – firing from the NFL – by the President. He, and others who are making this protest about the flag, the army, and patriotism, would rather the players stick to their designated “spot” in society: as objects for our entertainment. These players are citizens of our country who have the right to express their opinions and be as politically active as they want. Instead, in their attempts to work toward a “more perfect union,” they are being silenced and barred entry into a greater political conversation.
In February, the NFL aired a commercial called “Inside These Lines.” The narrator states, “Inside these lines is no such thing as an easy yard, when you’re fighting to move forward.” The commercial expresses how the fight for racial equality the players must face off the field is just as tough as the fight during a game. In football, movement up the field is measured in yards, sometimes only five or ten. It is slow-going, as the commercial points out, just as change in the political and social world is. Nevertheless, it takes just one person to "get the ball rolling," and for others to plow ahead and help them battle through the opposition.
People often say sports are like life. They teach you how to get up when you fall. They teach you to work with others. They teach you how to be a gracious winner and loser. They teach you to work hard for your goals and to never quit.
Unfortunately, sports do not teach us about racial equality.
At least, the examples of equality do not translate off the field. Many Americans are happy to cheer for their star African-American football player, and even play alongside and befriend him, yet still subject him to racist biases once the game has ended. Why isn’t the equality showcased on fields an ideal that we hold as dear in our private lives?
On February 12th, Nike launched an ad titled "Equality." It asks, “Is this the land history promised?” On the court, on the field, and within the lines of play, we define people by their actions; so why is it we can’t do the same elsewhere? This is not the America history promised, not when young Black men are routinely shot because of the color of their skin and the police who shot them are not held accountable. How can we consider racism a thing of the past when Black people are oppressed to this day? Trump and others may try to make this protest about disrespect, but the only disrespect present is coming from them; disrespect for Black lives and the right for these NFL players to kneel in objection to the way they are treated. Trump’s outrage and cry for dismissal of all protest participants from the league cannot overshadow the people who are the backbone of Kaepernick’s movement. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jerame Reid, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile. It must not be forgotten that these deaths are the reason for the protest. It’s more than a knee. It’s a way to protect the young Black men who still have lives to live. At the end of the Nike Equality ad the speaker demands, “The ball should bounce the same for everyone.” On courts and fields it does. On the NFL gridirons it does; there, white and Black players compete side by side on a level playing field. The players who are kneeling are making sure it does in the rest of life as well.
The protest Colin Kaepernick started is not the first time political issues have seeped into sports. During the 1986 Mexico Olympics, John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood on the medal podium and raised their fists while the star-spangled banner played. This Black power salute was a show of disappointment in a country that didn’t stand up to its promises. Billie Jean King advocated for Title IX for more gender equality. Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War because it went against his personal and religious beliefs. Former Attorney General Eric Holder said of Ali, “His biggest win came not in the ring but in our courts in his fight for his beliefs.” The Atlantic writes of Ali’s choice to stand his ground stating, “Muhammad Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War transcended not only the ring, which he had dominated as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, but also the realms of faith and politics.” This transcendence and ability to utilize their large platforms is what changed the course of history. To go beyond the lines of play to political issues that affect the lives of all Americans is an athlete’s greatest power. The NFL players who are kneeling are transcending the game of football to talk to those who need to listen the most.
Sports bring people together, as teammates and as fans. Black or white, we are in the fight together while the buzzer counts down and that bond should carry past the minutes we are huddled in a stadium or around a TV. The Nike Ad, "Together," portrays sport's unique ability to bring communities together in the hope of achieving something great. The emotional visuals follow the coming together of Ohioans around Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers as they fight to win an NBA title. Hands shoot into a huddle and bodies crowd around one another as they yell “Together!” White, Black, old, and young are a part of the team huddle, hearts locked on a common dream. Sports unite us in a way nothing else can. Let’s stay united even after game-day.