To Knee or Not To Be

A few nights ago, some friends and I sat on a couch at a bar, catching up and talking about what was going on with each of us since we had last hung out. One friend turned to the group and asked about the whole “kneeling thing” that she had been hearing about lately. This conversation, which took place just a couple of days after President Trump’s infamous tweets calling players who kneel “sons of bitches,” made me realize that a lot of people still don’t understand what’s really going on with this protest. I think it’s extremely important to address major issues on a forum like this, as we can better understand our world and our country by asking questions, reading, writing, and learning.

In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, began protesting during the national anthem by remaining seated on the bench. Kaepernick changed his method to kneeling after talking with Nate Boyer, a former NFL player and U.S. Army Green Beret, who respected Kaepernick’s protest but suggested that kneeling might be a more effective gesture. While Boyer expressed that he would remain standing, he understood that Kaepernick was trying to start a bigger conversation about racism and oppression in the United States.

Despite this mutual understanding that Kaepernick had established, the protest sparked quite a reaction among NFL fans, teammates, team owners, military service members, and politicians. Most who opposed Kaepernick’s kneeling during the anthem claimed that his actions were entirely disrespectful to the flag, our country, and especially those who have served to protect our country. Others also cite Kaepernick’s “ungrateful” attitude, as he kneels in protest despite his multi-million dollar salary and high profile status. Many who criticize Kaepernick also believe that social justice issues have no place in the football stadium and that this protest, therefore, causes unnecessary distraction. In other words, football players should take their fat paychecks and shut up. A number of NFL fans have refused to attend games and want to boycott the league until they take disciplinary action against those who protest. Regardless of how many times Kaepernick reiterated that his protest meant no disrespect to the military, critics continued to paint the quarterback as unpatriotic and greedy. Kaepernick inspired players on his own and other teams, notably Brandon Marshall and Michael Bennett, to join him in this protest, which promoted further attention on the issue.

These protests took place throughout the 2016-2017 season and continued to cause debate among the NFL community and beyond. This season, however, there is a discernible difference in this protest. Not only is Kaepernick, despite his above average career, unemployed, but there is also a new president in the White House, who cannot help but weigh in on the issue.

Trump’s tweets have reignited the controversy surrounding Kaepernick’s protest. Many NFL players and owners in response have taken a stand against President Trump’s derogatory tweets, displaying a more united front than last season. What is important to understand is that these players are utilizing their freedom as Americans to speak for those who do not have this platform on which to protest. Effective protesting requires a public arena, and these NFL players are literally using their arenas to seek justice for all people of color. These demonstrations are not thoughtless displays of anti-American sentiment, but rather they represent the unification of public figures to voice the concerns of an oppressed minority. Additionally, protests are intended to be unsettling, uncomfortable, and yes- controversial. Kaepernick set in motion a recognition of the racism that still exists today in America. Even the reaction to this protest alone has demonstrated the horrific presence of ideological racism that remains ingrained in the American mindset. It’s problematic when we start telling these players that they can’t use their voices to speak out against a problem that is evident in our everyday lives. The fact that people feel uncomfortable is part of the goal of any protest. These athletes want to get the attention of those who would not otherwise take part in a conversation about race and racism in the United States.

Race relations in America have never been ideal, and they have often been quite the opposite. During the era of jazz, African American musicians like Louis Armstrong felt the pressure of a white audience during a time in which racial inequality was legal and real. White audiences wanted Armstrong to perform with an Uncle Tom smile on his face, happily pandering to his white superiors. How are we any different today if we tell athletes that they are required to stand and accept injustice without any complaint? These athletes are human beings with the same rights as any other citizen. They don’t have to smile and entertain us. Yes, football is an entertaining sport, but these athletes are also doing this for their livelihood. The protest reflects a problematic historical view of white ownership: of America, of rights, of slaves. In her most recent episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Bee addresses this issue, stating, “And what a conversation we’re having! Talking about black people and their owners and how they should be grateful for the privilege of working on a field. Who says Trump is taking us backwards!” Bee points out the historical implications of this debate, as she alludes to white ownership of black bodies throughout past generations in America.

This season, the kneeling debate has taken on a new meaning in American culture and politics. Many NFL players and owners have chosen to link arms during the anthem, kneel prior to the anthem, or raise the fist as signs of protest. Additionally, the NBA has taken a firm stance against the protest, which has created speculation over how the NBA players, which consist of a majority of African Americans, will react during the anthem when the season commences. The act of kneeling has extended beyond professional sports, as local and college sports teams have started to protest as well. Even celebrities without a field on which to kneel have taken a knee, such as Shonda Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy cast members.

I think it’s most valuable to listen truly and with an open mind to the beliefs of those who kneel. Kneeling or protesting in some other way before, during, or after the anthem displays solidarity and recognition of the racial oppression that plagues our nation and the world.Colin Kaepernick’s former coach, Jim Harbaugh, said in a Sports Illustrated article, “The issue is, the more money you have, the more access you have to justice. The less money you have, the less access you have to justice.” Harbaugh originally reacted more negatively in the media regarding Kaepernick’s method of protest. After listening to his player, however, and trying to see his perspective, Harbaugh has now come to understand Kaepernick’s message. Harbaugh continues, “when you really stop and listen and know where Colin is coming from … he’s trying to do this for his future kids, for my kids, for all of our kids. He’s a special person and a hero, in my opinion.” Harbaugh demonstrates the value in opening our ears, eyes, and minds to the experiences of others, rather than ourselves. Kaepernick’s intentions are clear. And whether you support the protest or not, this act of kneeling has started a critical dialogue in America, which has previously been shy to recognize the racism that pervades American life today.