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Kaepernick: Dissecting the NFL Anthem Controversy

Religion professors and Williams students participated in a lunch talk last Friday hosted by the religion department. With blue mango Pad Thai fueling the participants, everyone was ready to dive into the content.

To my surprise, I learned it was only until 2009 when NFL players started to stand on the field during the national anthem. A professor acknowledged that Kaepernick did not kneel during the national anthem immediately, but rather he transitioned to kneeling after sitting for two national anthems. It was only when a reporter took a picture of him kneeling that it started to gain attention.

By kneeling in front of the flag, many people interpreted Kaepernick’s actions as a sign of disrespect to the military. At the end of his 2016 season, Kaepernick decided to opt out of the rest of the games. Currently, he is in the middle of a lawsuit with the NFL for of his political views. Since his stunt, he has become a polarizing figure in sports and politics. Kaepernick’s fans and supporters began boycotting the NFL, and Nike released an ad campaign featuring him on the cover. On the other side of the debate, some posted videos of themselves burning Nike products as a response to the Kaepernick ads.

Questions were posed like: “Are certain forms of politics more religious?” and “What does the flag have to do with religion?” A student brought up the point that when the flag is coupled with the military, it becomes a symbol for something that people have died for and in this way is very similar to the Christian cross. The flag no longer only just represents the U.S., but it symbolizes a background in U.S. history that people have aligned their political beliefs in values with.

Another professor brought up the fact that the state of mortality is at stake here, as well as how we are meant to treat the military’s death. It is worth keeping in mind how we as humans treat death and memorialize it in our society. That is partially why this has been so controversial. It followed that the flag gives people a sense of identity that is sacred and corresponds to the identity of the group. If someone disrespects the flag, then the people think the group is disrespected. The next question raised is, then who is the group?

One possible group, someone pointed out, are Trump supporters. The country has been fractioned, and Trump has fueled the divide between those who support Kaepernick and those who do not. Trump has made this discussion sacrilegious. Because most of his supporters are sold as hard patriotic Americans, the identity of his predominantly white and religious group was threatened. It is true that liberals watch NBC, and conservatives watch FOX. Therefore, it makes sense that conservatives are eating up the facts that twist Kaepernick’s motivations and make him out to be someone who is anti-military, anti-American and disrespectful.

We know canonical texts are set up with a certain sanctity, though critiques still exist. Kaepernick’s critique was not the problem, for critique is expected and typical for all religious texts. The national anthem is meant to be something sacred, and people are asked to be compliant, part of the problem was fueled by the fear of radically confronting something sacred.

However, would it be worse if Kaepernick were forced to pledge allegiance to the flag, even if he did not feel anything for it or respect it? Should we care? There is also a significant number of people who can’t name what he is protesting. And there’s a mischaracterization of what he was exactly protesting. This ignorance also fueled the hysteria surrounding the issue, which did not stop at burning Nike products.

It is interesting to see how the NBA responds to protestors on the court as opposed to the NFL. The NBA bans protests, but they work with the athletes better than the NFL. Perhaps it is that football is an American sport and more closely relates to die hard patriotic fans than basketball does.

Context matters. It is important to remember that mainstream media would criticize Kaepernick if he was critiquing the military. That was not his goal. He explicitly said he wasn't insulting the military in this article.

Even Muhammad Ali was against the military, but he's still considered the greatest athlete of all time (although his views did change as he became more popular).

The point is, if Kaepernick had kneeled with Hilary Clinton as president, I don't think this controversy would last as long as it has.


Nica is a Senior at Williams College majoring in Biology and taking pre-medical courses. She is a member of Ritmo Latino and GQ A cappella. Her passions include public health, reading, and yoga.
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