The NFL Anthem Protests, A Retrospective


‘This is not the place for politics’, ‘Football and politics shouldn’t mix’, and ‘They should protest on their own time.’ These were some of the things we continue to hear about the protests that have exploded in the NFL recently. The protests, which involve kneeling for the national anthem when it is played before the games, was started by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick before a preseason game in 2016. In recent weeks, however, it has seen a significant growth following comments by Donald Trump calling for those involved to be fired.

Kaepernick actually sat for the anthem originally, to protest racial injustices and the racial biases shown by American police forces. Kaepernick was later convinced by a veteran to kneel instead of sitting. He felt that this showed more respect towards American flag and the anthem while still making Kaepernick’s point; “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. 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.”

While Colin Kaepernick has received support from many, he has been vilified by pundits, fans and Presidents alike. He is currently a free agent, despite his significant talent. As a player, he should have a team, but as a person, he is seen as too provocative. No team will take him on.

It also took the comments of President Trump to move Kaepernick’s protest from one involving a handful of players to a significant movement. About 180 players knelt in week 3 of the NFL following Trump’s comments at a rally in Alabama; “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

Yet the fact that it took Trump’s involvement to provoke action from players is lamentable. Protesting now, the players involved can hide behind protesting their President. This is a far more palatable idea to many Americans who oppose Trump but are still fiercely patriotic and bristle at criticism of their nation and what they view as disrespect towards its anthem and its flag.

Julius Peppers, of the Carolina Panthers, who stayed in the locker room for the anthem, said “I just thought it was appropriate to stay in because; we know what went on this week with the comments that were made by the President, I felt like he attacked our bothers, my brothers in the league; I felt like it was appropriate to stand up with them and stay in the locker room.”

Peppers might be looking to support Kaepernick’s stand against racial injustice, but the final straw was the comments by Trump. Even the protesters are on the fence about protesting. This gives us an idea of the environment in which these players are operating and the anger with which the protests have been received.

In and of themselves, the protests are a fascinating episode of American political action to delve into, but they prompt a wider question. Was Kaepernick right? Are these protests “bigger than football?” Should sport and politics even mix? A classic response to the protests has been the line that sport and politics should be separate, and that if players want to protest they should do it in their free time, not while the nation is watching them play football.

This, however, is a strange idea. Sport and politics are intrinsically linked, and always have been. The very concept of a location-based sports team means that the teams are representing other groups of people. They are inherently political actors. The Barcelona football team, for example, is heavily linked to the Catalan cause, and their rivalry with Real Madrid stems largely from the civil war, with Barca representative of the communist movement and Madrid of the King.

Celtic and Rangers have such fierce rivalries because of the religious and political differences between the two Glaswegian fanbases. When Jesse Owens won gold at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, it was just as much a political and moral victory as a sporting one, given the host nation. As representatives of areas, communities or countries, sports teams are, in their definition, political actors.

The argument could be made, though, that although this was once the case in most sports teams, many of the affiliations to communities and areas have fallen away with the rise of global fanbases, and hence sport and politics, in many cases, are no longer inextricably linked.

This is a valid point to make – in some cases, there is very little affiliation. Yet in acknowledging this, we need to move away from ‘Is sport political?’ to ‘Should sport be political?’ Sport is special in the passion and patriotism that it can inspire. Fans follow their teams with incredible emotional investment and interest and so can be far more affected by the actions of their team than by faceless politicians they feel little attachment to.

Sport is and has been an incredible platform for activism. To combat the apartheid regime in South Africa, the South Africans were ostracised from world sport; a massive deal for a sports-mad country. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in 1968, the picture was seen and talked about all over the world. The reason that sports stars often talk politics is that they are aware that they have this platform.

Similarly, the NFL protests today have reignited a much needed discussion about the disproportionate levels of police violence towards people of colour. To think that the action of sports stars cannot and do not influence the wider world is inherently foolish. All eyes are on them, and that means that they can really make a difference. This is why the “protest on your own time” argument makes no sense. When trying to effect change, you want to do it while the world is watching.

Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton spoke to this following the protests in week three; “This is not just no Sunday thing, this is something that has been an issue in our country for years and years and years, and it’s just has to be an everyday thing and that’s what we have to make people aware of. It’s not just about the national anthem on Sunday, it’s about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

If then, we recognise that sports teams are often political, and that sport is an effective environment for protest and change, what we are left with is an argument about respect and offence. On the one hand, those opposed to mixing sport and politics argue that sport should remain pure, and free of the kind of offensive and heated discourse of politics. With particular focus on the NFL protests, they say that the protests themselves also disrespect that American flag, anthem, and in turn her veterans, patriots and her very fabric.

On the other hand though, the protesters themselves maintain that they mean to cause no offence, merely to raise awareness of their issue in a respectful manner. Again from Newton; “By no means do we want to offend anybody, I don’t think nobody who has protested meant for it to be disrespectful to the United States flag, by no means. Whatever demonstration or protest that person might have are just personal beliefs that that individual believes in.”

The issue lies in actions and intentions. Those who view the kneeling as disrespectful do not care about the intention of the kneeling, just the kneeling itself, which they find offensive. It is here that we reach a fork in the road. The two sides of the argument interpret the same action in different ways and, when this is the situation, it is very difficult to find consensus. One side sees respectful protest, while the other sees something offensively anti-Americanism.

While this might seem like a potentially valid argument against the NFL protests, hindsight shows that such complaints are common in instances where sport has managed to change things for the good. Smith and Carlos’s protest in 1968 was met with sharp criticism from many in America who resented their stand on racial injustice and many believed the boycotting of South African sport to be futile.

At a fundamental level, protests aren’t meant to please everyone. There are those who believe that the flag and anthem should not be disrespected, such as Carolina coach Ron Rivera. Speaking to the media following the protests; “I really think what we need to do is for everybody to be united, to all stand, to look at the flag, be at attention … left hand by our sides, right hand on our hearts, we need to look at the flag, we need to the listen to the anthem, we need to think and envision and American we believe in; that’s free from bigotry, that’s free from injustice.”

While Rivera’s view is undeniably valid, there are many more who simply use the argument of respect in an attempt to avoid the conversation either because they find it uncomfortable or they actively prefer the status quo. These protests were designed to generate change, something Rivera also spoke on; “I think the time for doing is now. Let’s start talking about what the solution is; how we can do things as an organisation, how we can do things as a community to start bringing closure to this and start showing that we are truly working in a direction to correct those things that everybody was protesting against.”

Whether you agree with Rivera or not about how the protests should be conducted, it is hard to deny that they have sparked a conversation. Like with much of American politics, however, the challenge is now to turn that conversation in progress. The step that now needs to be taken is for those involved to identify what change would look like at a day-to-day level.

Do the police need better training? Does the US need tighter gun regulations to minimise escalations? Does it start earlier, should the US look at how race is dealt with inside the education system? This list could last for pages, and whilst here is not the place to have this discussion in full, it does need to be had.

As long as the conversation is able to be derailed by people opposed to change’s comments about the respect for the military or the flag or the anthem then change will be hard to come by. What the protests are though, is a brave first step; something that has been lacking at the national level of American politics in recent years. “There’s something coming in the mist … the time is upon us for us to do something, to bring people closer together.” Hopefully Newton is right in this.

This really is about so much more than football, or any sport. People will be offended, as is their right, but who really cares when there are children being shot by those that are meant to protect them, and these players can do something about it? Progress isn’t free, and Kaepernick has already paid his price, but standing passively by is rarely the route to real change.

“There are only a few times in man’s life that you get a chance to stand up for something that you believe in, and make a statement. Today I thought that was that chance, and I took it” – Julius Peppers

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