I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to have to talk about politics in this space; we’ve got a news and commentary section for that sort of thing. But sometimes, a monumental event forces your hand. That event was the mass kneeling of NFL players during the national anthem two Sundays ago.
If you are an avid reader of the Collegian’s sports section (I’ve heard there are at least two of you out there), you may recall an article I wrote last year about trying to keep politics out of sports. That’s become somewhat of a controversial opinion in its own right lately — Bob Costas called those with that opinion “mouth-breathers” on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher a couple weeks ago — but in short, I felt then as I do now that athletic competition is one of the last truly unifying factors in an ever-more-polarized world. Sports allow you to put your personal prejudices and biases aside and focus on the beauty of whichever game you happen to be watching or playing. Or if that’s not enough, they enable you to satisfy your primal need for tribalism in a mostly harmless environment; whether they voted for Trump or Clinton, Michigan voters know exactly where to direct all their animosity when it’s gameday against Ohio State.
For this very reason, I’ve always hated reading veiled political commentary in sports coverage. Just tell me what happened during the game, not how everything tangentially relates to the hot-button topics of the day. Those are precisely the things I’m trying to take a break from! Still, I included an important caveat in last year’s piece which I will repeat now in hopes of not being branded a hypocrite: when the athletes themselves take a political stance through their words or actions (not the writers injecting politics into their analysis), everything is fair game. Think Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King…and now every athlete who made the decision to defy Donald Trump by kneeling for the national anthem.
In case you weren’t paying attention to the events of two weeks, here is an abbreviated version of events. While in Alabama, President Trump told a rally of his most rabid followers that he would love to see NFL owners fire the “sons of bitches” who kneel for the national anthem and “disrespect our flag.” The son of a bitch in question was obviously intended to be Colin Kaepernick, who last year knelt in defiance of police brutality, and who no longer has a job in the league through a combination of his media toxicity and his own limited ability as quarterback. Unsurprisingly, the line was a big hit with Trump’s faux-patriotic crowd but it didn’t go over too well with many NFL athletes. And boy oh boy did they make that known on Sunday.
Let me begin here by saying that every player was absolutely, 100 percent within his constitutional rights to kneel. That’s been said a thousand times over but it’s worth repeating because any suggestion from the office of the president of the United States with free-speech-squashing implications represents a serious breach of responsibility. Trump’s comment certainly qualifies; it was a stupid thing to say and totally beneath his office. Still, I believe it remains a worthwhile question to ask not if kneeling is within the players’ rights, but whether it is a righteous or worthwhile action. Ultimately, I believe the answer to that question is no.
I won’t go into the particulars of Kaepernick’s original protest because that’s not really what is at play here. The players who knelt this season were not protesting police brutality. Nor did they do so in order to purposefully disrespect the flag, anthem, armed forces or the very country itself (a drum which conservatives will not stop beating). Rather, the kneelers were sending a message to the president that he, a man they do not particularly like or respect, cannot tell them what to do or say. Unfortunately, this is not what the country sees.
Conducting a protest during the national anthem may be symbolic of something else, but the perception will always be that it is a protest of the country itself. How could it not? Donald Trump is not attending every game, standing at midfield and singing the national anthem himself. The only constant at all these events is that when the banner starts, players take a knee. And that’s going to be polarizing, because there are millions of Americans who see any sign of disrespect happening during the anthem, regardless of its intentions, as an insult to the country. That is not to say that one’s actions should be based on what is most pleasing to the masses, but I do think one must be prepared to take some responsibility for divisiveness if it stems from an action that one knows will have that effect. It doesn’t help either that there is no clear moral righteousness to the protest.
Take John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who famously raised their fists in a black power salute during a medal presentation at the 1968 Olympics. The merits of this gesture can certainly be debated, as to whether or not Carlos and Smith’s action helped bring about change or further inflamed racial tensions, but at least it is inarguable that they were protesting a genuine injustice inherent to the American experience. Segregation and true, enforced institutional racism were unavoidable elements of everyday life and these men were telling the world that the system needed changing.
In 2017, what is the institutional issue at play? Donald Trump? He’s not a part of the fabric of the country, he’s an elected public official who these guys just don’t like. You might say that institutional racism is still the big issue here based on Trump’s apparent ambivalence towards his white nationalist supporters, but if that’s the case, why did so many players wait until week 3 to kneel? After all, Charlottesville happened before the season began! No, it’s far from a coincidence that the kneeling started only after Trump delivered a petty insult to get a rise out of his crowd. This was nothing more than a giant f— you.
Again, that is the players’ prerogative and perfectly within their constitutional rights. But it’s also playing directly into the hands of the president and his Republican cronies who want to paint their opposition as ungrateful and unpatriotic. Trump is a ten-year-old trying to get his little brother to swat at a hornet nest by telling him he won’t do it, and the left is taking the bait hook, line and sinker.
While this is only my own opinion and one that I’m sure many demonstrators would disagree with, I believe an act of reclaiming the flag as a symbol of unity would go further in strengthening the anti-Trump brigade than shunning it would. While the right-wing shouts that they are the only ones that love our country, prove them wrong by continuing to honor the flag and anthem and all they represent: the rich, powerful, free, historically flawed but increasingly egalitarian society that has given us all so much. Think this administration is setting us on a path to destruction? Fine, then show that the world that United States is strong enough to overcome insidious forces that try to destroy us from within, don’t just hand her over to them!
In the end, symbolism for country matters, and you saw this last week after the tragic Las Vegas shootings. In week 4, the number of players kneeling during the anthem dropped from 180 to 52 according to ESPN, in large part because players knew exactly how it would look to protest a symbol of the nation while the nation was in mourning. Natural disasters and acts of terrorism, as horrible as they are, at least have a way of reminding us that we are all brothers and sisters under the American flag. And we should think twice before doing something that makes it look like we are throwing that away. United we stand.