A Kneeler’s Pledge: Politics, Sport, and the Nature of Protest
Now in its third year sparking national headlines and dividing sports-lovers and the marginalized alike, the opting of NFL players to kneel on the field during the playing of the national anthem has increasingly called into question the sanctity of the First Amendment and our nation’s longstanding history with unchecked, systemic racism. From individual players like former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to the entire Seattle Seahawks squad, kneeling during the anthem is a concerted effort to bring to light issues of police brutality and the rubrics of privilege in modern society. Despite this, many people, across the political divide, consider the actions of football players to be egregiousâ€“ an attack on traditional American values that taints the spirit of the game with an unnecessary insertion of political talk. While this issue seems on the surface to be quite simple to parse out, the emotional profundity of the matter and the explicit consequences of holding certain opinions proves otherwise.
A recent poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal has determined that the stances on kneeling during the anthem are heavily divided, with 43% of respondents deeming it appropriate and 54% considering otherwise. The most illuminating parts of the findings are the racial and political divisions of those polled. Democrats and African-Americans were overwhelmingly more likely to believe kneeling during the anthem was well within reason and law (72% and 70% respectively), while Republicans and white Americans considered protesting to be un-American and demonstrative of the fall of the nation to political correctness (88% and 58% respectively). Bureaucratically speaking, the NFL during the onset of players protesting implemented a system of fines to impose on teams whose players kneel, but amidst increasingly bad press from viewers and political pundits, the logistics are still in conversation. The negative press has prompted major television networks such as CBS, NBC, and ESPN to cease airing the National Anthem performance before games. The decision has even brought President Trump to Twitter, labelling the NFL’s actions a “spineless surrender” to an unpatriotic, hypersensitive new America.
Given the intense vitriol hurled at both the players kneeling and those fans vocal in supporting them, it is important to acknowledge the root of the civil protest more critically, both as part of the the culture of sports and our nation’s history of minority organizing. Recent years have seen anthropologists and academic researchers broadening their anthropological examinations of global cultures, their development in the past, and impact on the present. More specifically, a subset of applied physical anthropology known as “sport anthropology” has garnered increased esteem in academic circles. While many of us consider sports as simply competitive games of strength, skill, and luck, sports have innate political, cultural, and socioeconomic dimensions to them that explain their social standing and evolution throughout time. We can and should consider sports as their own institutions, comprised of and shaped by individuals and the intersectional identities, as well as the experiences they carry with them. Therefore, when kneeling for the anthem is painted as tainting the fun of football with misplaced political commentary, the perspective misses the inherent nature of sports altogether. One cannot readily separate individual athletes from a team, a society from a nation, and that should be recognized before relegating political talk to isolated instances.
It is also valuable to address how attempts made to combat protesters continue to follow the formulaic tradition of white engagement with minority voices. Perhaps articulated most clearly in Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, minority populations petitioning the government for the redress of grievances, a First Amendment freedom, has traditionally been considered unwise, untimely, and generally uncalled for. Blacks in the fight for equal rights have always been told to wait for the future to protest vocally, that it was inappropriate at the current time to do so, but as MLK noted, “wait” has always been synonymous with “never.” In convincing blacks and other minorities that their grievances were unjustified and inappropriate to presently voice, white America has and is able to hold on to social dominance, with no possibility of “others” stripping that from them.
Going back to the protests of standing for the National anthem during NFL games, it is critical to recognize that those choosing to kneel aren’t doing so because they hate America or American values. If anything, they represent those individuals who most clearly understand what being a person in this country means, both for those who benefit from racial privilege and those lacking those luxuries. Sports, just as any organization of individuals, represent microcosms of our nation and the rich histories that define it. While it is easy to dismiss the athletes who choose to kneel, those visibly “transgressing,” as the source of the problem, we should strive to develop self-awareness of our own complicitness in the hardships of others.
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