“Never talk about religion and politics in polite company.” So goes the old adage. Now we could add, “Or sports, protest, and patriotism.”
We used to play flag football. Now its flag and football.
If you want to launch a debate, or pick a fight, just weigh in on news stories reporting NFL players kneeling or sitting during the playing of the national anthem prior to a football game. Guaranteed you’ll get a rousing response, because feelings on all sides of this now multi-faceted issue are right on the surface.
August 2016, then NFL San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for an NFL preseason game. In an interview with NFL Media after the game he said, “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."
Later, according to NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport, the NFL released a statement saying, “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem." (The NBA has a clear, must-stand policy.)
Periodically during the 2016 NFL season, various players around the league emulated Kaepernick’s actions, but the reasons behind their protest began to broaden. Given the limited number of players involved, the protest may have been dying out, or at least was getting to a point it attracted minimal attention.
Then September 22, 2017, at a Huntsville, Alabama rally President Donald Trump called for owners to fire protesting players refusing to stand for the national anthem and encouraged fans to walk out on games when players protested. He also ridiculed the NFL for safety concerns regarding CTE, charged the game was being ruined by tighter safety rules, and used profane language to reference players.
This vigorous challenge by the President galvanized players, coaches, and staff across the NFL such that September 24, 2017, protests occurred throughout the league at virtually every game with more than 200 players sitting or kneeling during the national anthem. Some protests included owners and some locked arms or raised fists, while other players stood at attention.
Since this time, President Trump has periodically continued his push back on the NFL players and many fans nationwide have interpreted the players’ protests as disrespectful to the flag, dishonoring to veterans, police, and first responders, evidence of rich “whiny millionaires,” or “spoiled,” “entitled,” ungrateful athletes who are biting the hand that feeds them.
At the same time, the original meaning of protests—police brutality, killing of young black men by police, racial justice, or racism in general—have been rejected or set aside by many fans, NFL owners, and some coaches. And in much media, a focus on the original meaning of the protests has morphed from police brutality and racism to disrespect for the flag, police, and veterans.
Protesting players and those who support them have argued this is a First Amendment issue, that professional football players have the right to express themselves as much as any other American citizen. But a counter argument has been made saying professional football players on a field of play are “at work” so when they interject political protest “on the job,” whether during the national anthem or otherwise, they are in violation of common workplace expectations and policies that one should express one’s politics outside of the workplace.
Television networks have begun to skip coverage of the national anthem. October 17, 2017, the NFL owners and Commissioner met with players and the NFL Players Association Executive Director to discuss the matter and rumors suggested the NFL considered changing its policy regarding what is expected of players during the playing of the national anthem. But to date, no rule change has been enacted.
If the measure of the effectiveness of a political protest is the amount of attention it garners, then by any standard, Kaepernick and subsequent players’ protests have been eminently successful. You’d have to have been on Mars for the past few months to not know something about players taking a knee during the national anthem.
If the measure of effectiveness of a political protest is the number of people you recruit to supporting your cause, then Kaepernick and other players’ protests have been an abject failure, because NFL game attendances have plummeted, notables (nearly all White) are on record saying they will never watch another NFL game, and more importantly, the original intent of the protests have been wholly overwhelmed and displaced by patriotic concerns for the symbolism of the flag, i.e. few people are talking about police brutality or racism.
Other than earning its own Wikipedia page, perhaps the jury is still out on the ultimate effectiveness of this protest. But more than a year in, the controversy has not gone away and is not likely to do so anytime soon. One reason is that this protest and reaction gets to core matters in the American political culture—race relations, criminal justice, professional sports, and patriotism.
Everyone has an opinion, which may be good. What’s not so good is that the hyper-sensitive nature of race and patriotism writ large in the optics of a national anthem protest lead much of the public and/or media response to gloss over a number of critical considerations.
- Until 2009, professional football teams stayed in the locker room to conserve game preparation time, so lining up for the national anthem is a relatively recent phenomenon in the NFL, one that started as much for the perceived profitable optics as any zeal for patriotism.
- While the US Code calls for standing during playing of the national anthem this has never been enforced or considered a legal matter, so NFL players are not breaking the law when “not standing.”
- As noted earlier, the NFL does not require players to stand during the national anthem, so players opting to kneel or sit during the national anthem are not in violation of league policy.
- While a symbol vested with enormous emotional sentiment based upon a history of sacrifice and patriotism, the US flag is not sacred and thus protected from all desecration, including burning, stomping, wearing as clothing, etc., so the public’s veneration of the flag, while understandable and admirable, is not a legal or moral requirement of any citizen.
- The First Amendment restricts government’s intervention upon citizen expression, but one’s freedom to speak or otherwise express oneself is not unlimited or apply to every life circumstance and an entire body of case law interprets this, plus, there is no absolute right to freedom of speech in the workplace.
- Members of the public who consider it disrespectful to the flag and offensive when people do not stand for the national anthem and in turn call for players or others to be required to stand for the national anthem may have forgotten that the US has experienced similar dilemmas before, for example, no one can be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
- Colin Kaepernick may have been a poor spokesperson, given his penchant for wearing socks with police officers depicted as pigs and his negative comments not about issues per se but about the United States, but of course this is a subjective observation and whatever one thinks of Kaepernick, he is an American citizen with every right to express himself.
- President Trump may be speaking for the feelings of many citizens regarding the form of the protest, but when he called players, in general, “S.O.B.s,” and attacked the NFL’s slow but progressing uptake on legitimate safety issues, he seemed to be baiting people more than making substantive comments.
The NFL players’ national anthem protests, and President Trump’s later and continuing follow-up, have produced considerable heat but not much light on the issues involved.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that opposing sides do not seem to be listening to each other. This is apparent in the virtual absence of any discussion of race relations or police practices, a wholesale media focus on the flag and the national anthem, and except for one NFL owners/players meeting, only limited attempts to discuss what prompted this protest and what, if anything, can and should be done about the issues involved. The focus of national dissension or discussion re the protests is not really about race and justice but about patriotism. This said, there is some response among leading players and at the team and city level where players are working together with police and others to find ways to serve their communities.
Another disheartening outcome of this controversy is the incredible fan and public reaction that, if taken at face value, willingly recommends silencing players’ freedom of speech or forcing players, via some corporate or legal coercion, to stand for the national anthem, or otherwise demanding compliance with what’s considered the appropriate action. The patriotic sentiment involved is understandable, but players have repeatedly said they are not aiming their concerns at the military.
Where the public’s reaction possibly would make sense is if the NFL actually had a policy on standing for the anthem, or if the league would make clear to players that what they do on the field is part of their workplace and employee relationship. To date, the NFL has not done this and seems to not be sure what to do next to get itself out of a P.R. debacle. So one wonders if the issue is more the stumbling way the NFL has handled this protest than it is players’ freedom of speech, or even the nature or time of the protest.
Lastly, there are the national anthem and flag themselves. Aside from what the protests represent, the fact that players chose to express their views during the national anthem was a huge misstep in Kaepernick’s or later players’ strategy. It backfired on them miserably and would have done so without President Trump’s ill-conceived and needless intervention. If indeed some players wish to encourage serious discussion about race relations, police practices, and criminal justice in general, they would be well-served to find a way to express these views in a manner that does not appear to be undermining the free country in which they live.
Some would reject this comment out of hand, even calling it racist because perhaps it is not sensitive enough to African Americans’ concerns. But this is not the point here. Martin Luther King Jr’s approach during the Civil Rights Movement was not to attack or dismiss the country in which he lived (which a small number of players have done but by all means not most) but to point to its unrealized ideals in the lives of Black citizens. He called people to a higher account. He did not tear down; he built up. He did not want to silence those who disagreed with him; he wanted to hear from those he represented, to give them a voice in the public space. This is a lesson Colin Kaepernick, and it appears many in the general public, missed.
Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2017
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