Kneeling in the NFL: A Contentious Pursuit of Positive Change

When Colin Kaepernick decided to sit for the anthem on August 14th, 2016, he probably had no idea that it would turn him into a symbol, cost him his job, and lead to scorn from the US President. In the age of social media and viral news, the simple message of the original protest has nearly been lost. So to start, here are some facts that need to be stated, and myths that need to be dispelled:

Colin Kaepernick did opt out of his contract, but the 49ers were going to cut him as they are a team moving in a new direction under new management.

His unemployment is not a result of his ability, in 2016 he finished 23rd in QBR, so at the very least he is a qualified backup. Nor is it a result of him asking for too much money, as no team have had any contract discussions with him.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on September 9, 2012. Photo by Mike Morbeck.

Players only started standing for the anthem in 2009, and the military often pays major sports leagues in the US for events celebrating the military and veterans. Players are not bringing politics into football, it’s already there.

Lastly, kneeling for the anthem was suggested by former NFL player and veteran Nate Boyer because he thought that it was more respectful to the military than Kaepernick’s original act of sitting.

I spend more time than anyone should on the NFL’s Facebook comment page, and the trend I notice is that the discussion revolves around the protest itself, whether it’s an expression of first amendment right or if it’s simply disrespectful to the country and its military. Messages about why people are boycotting get copy pasted and brought straight to the top of most threads.

What comes up less often is discussions about racial injustice. Kaepernick and Eric Reid, a fellow 49er who was the first to join Kap in kneeling, wanted to draw attention to systematic police violence against African-Americans.While the protest has drawn large amounts of media coverage, it hasn’t created the sort of meaningful dialogue about the actual issue that Kap wanted. All discussions about the protests have now become centred around the protest, because everyone feels like they must pick a side. Kaepernick, Reid and Boyer wanted us to come together, but all that has happened is that a country that has been divided throughout its history has found another way in which to be divided.

“You must respect the anthem, even if you don’t agree with what it represents.”

How come so many people are angrier about people kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner than about police brutality? Is it that America the flag means more to them than any other country in the west? This is a country that makes students pledge allegiance to the flag every single day. The message this sends is that you must respect the anthem, even if you don’t agree with what it represents, anything less than full respect for the flag and anthem is disrespectful. Despite Boyer, a veteran, recommending this form of protest, people feel this ‘disrespecting’ of the flag also means the players are disrespecting veterans.

Could another reason people are so angry be that they believe these players are crying wolf? An opinion I’ve seen is that police brutality isn’t as big a problem as black people make it out to be. These people probably don’t realise Eric Reid started protesting because Alton Sterling, a black man, was held down and shot several times in Baton Rouge, Reid’s hometown, and he felt that this could have happened to anyone in his family who still lives there. The officer responsible for the shooting was not charged criminally.

However, to some people the overwhelming evidence that the police often exercise racial bias and excessive force is not enough to convince them that racism is a problem in America. These people are often the same people that believe that whites are more disenfranchised than minorities because of things like affirmative action, and say things like “70% of NFL players are black #BoycotttheracistNFL” and “Maybe they should protest black criminality”. While the alternative point of “let them go because some people are so backwards their opinions will never change” can sound appealing, if we take that path then we are actively allowing racism to continue. If we ignore people with whom we disagree we will never have the dialogues that lead to positive change.

So where can this go from here? Well the first thing is that to move forward, Kaepernick must be vindicated. He is currently suing the NFL for colluding to keep him out of the league, and he needs to either win his case or be allowed to return to the NFL. Until one of those happens it undermines anyone in America’s right to not be fired over a peaceful protest. Nate Boyer said he thinks that Kaepernick and Trump should sit down and have a conversation, and move forward together. My initial reaction to reading that was I didn’t believe that it would be positive because I don’t think that Trump would listen to what Kap has to say, but now I see what Boyer wants. Boyer wants us to be willing to talk to people who have differing views and try to convince them to move forward towards a better society, which is a noble idea, and one with more potential for positive change than further division.

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