An analysis of the National Anthem protests by NFL players will reveal the two sides of what has become and remains a highly controversial debate. It will explore the players use of First Amendment rights to bring attention to racial injustice as well as what many feel is a despicable and disrespectful act to one of our nation’s symbols.
The protests were started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Soon after, several players followed his lead in the same way or another. Many, as does this writer, believe this gesture brings disrespect to our nation and those who serve in the profession of arms and to our country overall.
It wasn’t until World War I that “The Star-Spangled Banner” started to be associated with American sports. The house band unexpectedly began playing the song at a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, evoking a passionate response from the crowd of more than ten thousand spectators (Issitt).
In a preseason NFL game in 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during the playing of our national anthem. The move was done to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice. Ever since that game, Mr. Kaepernick has exerted more influence on American society than any of his peers who play on Sundays (Gregory and Abramson). Many players agreed with his reason for kneeling and followed suit. Some players raised their fists during the playing of the National Anthem, a move reminiscent of former Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith did in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (Issitt). Most of those NFL players still protest during games today with very little impact on their careers.
But Colin Kaepernick’s career has been greatly impacted. He paid a heavy price for taking on the country’s most popular sport. Despite boasting talent and credentials that surpass those of many of the journeymen quarterbacks signed in the two seasons that have followed since his protest, he has found himself unemployed. The front offices NFL teams decided they were better off without the distraction (Gregory and Abramson).
The protests became highly controversial, and is still a rather hot topic even today. The perception from veterans, politicians, and some businesses believe the protests to be inappropriate and disrespectful. AMVETS, and organization America Veterans, denounced the NFL for refusing to ask players to stand for the National Anthem earlier this year during the Super Bowl (Stratmoen, Lawless and Saucier). U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted “Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country…kneeling is not acceptable” (Stratmoen, Lawless and Saucier). Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin argued that Colin Kaepernick himself was not oppressed and therefore could not stand against oppression (Issitt). Senator Ted Cruz also tweeted that athletes “who have made millions in America’s freedom” should stop insulting the flag, the nation, and its heroes (Issitt). In September of last year, the Palmetto Restaurant and Ale House in Greenville, SC, stopped showing NFL games in the owner’s own protest and saw business increase by 20% the following month (Gregory and Abramson). Nine Line Apparel, a Savannah, GA-based company, sold more than 30,000 shirts that say “I STAND FOR OUR NATIONAL ANTHEM” after the protests began. “They will never understand what it’s like to lose a friend overseas, carry him back home with a flag draped over his casket, and hand that flag over to his child,” says CEO Tyler Merritt, an Army veteran. “They are acting out of ignorance”(Gregory and Abramson).
But with some, the perception of the protests is just the opposite. There are some in professional sports who wholeheartedly agree with Kaepernick’s stance or the right for him to protest in the manner he has chosen. Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has gone as far as to say protesting players should be considered patriots. “Where’s your heart? Where’s your compassion?” asks Kerr. “Whatever side of the Kaepernick issue you’re on, if you’re helping your fellow man, that’s the most important thing” (Gregory and Abramson). The Seattle Seahawks have stated “As a team, we have decided we will not participate in the national anthem. We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country. Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms’ (ProCon.org). The protest influenced professional athletes in other leagues, too. A WNBA team, the Indiana Fever, knelt before a game on September 22, 2018 (ProCon.org). To the surprise of some, there are a few veterans who support the protests. #VeteransForKaepernick have expressed support of his first amendment right to protest and 35 veterans signed a letter stating “Far from disrespecting our troops, there is no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice than for Americans to enthusiastically exercise their freedom of speech” (ProCon.org).
It would appear the general public seems to be evenly divided on the issue. “According to an HBO/Marist poll, 47% of Americans thought athletes should be required to stand during the anthem; 51% believed no rule should exist” (Gregory and Abramson). There are many who question why professional athletes feel the need to express their beliefs at a time reserved for honoring our flag and those who protect it (Gregory and Abramson). Seth DeValve, tight end for the Cleveland Browns, became the first player to kneel for the National Anthem and stated “The United States is the greatest country in the world. And it is because it provides opportunities to its citizens that no other country does. The issue is that it doesn’t provide equal opportunity to everybody, and I wanted to support my African-American teammates today who wanted to take a knee. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that there’s things in this country that still need to change” (ProCon.org). DeValve’s position on the issue was meet with criticism, with one fan commenting on the team’s Facebook page, ‘Pray before or pray after. Taking a knee during the National Anthem these days screams disrespect for our Flag, Our Country and our troops. My son and the entire armed forces deserve better than that” (ProCon.org).
Some NFL fans understand that racial inequality – violence against minorities, in particular – is the reason players are protesting (Stratmoen, Lawless and Saucier). And some of those fans may question those who criticize activism of multimillionaire athletes. “When critics lampoon the activism of multimillionaire athletes, labeling them entitled and ungrateful, are they saying the money players earned through the sacrifice of time and body disqualifies them from free expression” (Gregory and Abramson)?
The National Anthem protests have certainly raised awareness of racial issues. African-Americans comprise of 15% of the U.S. population, but the biases against them often lead to law enforcement using more extreme force against African-American suspect leading to roughly 40% of them being shot and killed (Stratmoen, Lawless and Saucier).
“What Kaepernick started really pushed these issues to the forefront,” says Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins (Gregory and Abramson).
Malcolm Jenkins is a co-founder of the Players Coalition, an organization current and former NFL players that fights injustices disproportionately affecting African Americans (Thomas). He talks about his personal experiences as a child and what the issues he sees today.
I remember my dad always complaining about getting pulled over. I remember the differences in school systems. I remember seeing police officers, not knowing their names, and knowing that they were there not to protect us, not to serve us, but to watch us. Now, as an adult, I’m seeing the symptoms of a bigger problem. (Thomas)
Jenkins had been very vocal about police shootings. But it wasn’t until after the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas police officer shootings that he felt the need to become more involved (Thomas). He talks about the creation of the Players Coalition.
It started with a group text. We had probably 60 players on it, two or three guys from almost every team. In those conversations, Anquan Boldin extended an invitation to come to Capitol Hill to meet with legislators. Three other guys and I took him up on the offer. We made the trip during the (2016–17) season, then took another trip that March, 2017. Once we realized how much influence we were able to have, how many meetings we were able to get, we realized we could amplify our voices if we put them together. (Thomas)
After seeing the impact of the Capitol Hill visit, the Players Coalition decided to use the approach in other areas of government.
So we took that same process to the state and local level. We meet with grassroots organizers, legislators, and police departments, and push for bills that are happening locally. We realized that’s where most things are happening anyway. (Thomas)
Jenkins also met with Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, Jr., NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, and city public defenders.
They wanted to know how they could support us and how we could work together. So we said, “Come see why we’re protesting; come see why we’re making all this noise.” We said, “We’re not looking for permission to do anything. We’ve already been doing this on our own. But if you want to understand what we’re trying to get accomplished, we invite you to see for yourself firsthand.” (Thomas)
The Players Coalition meetings with congressional leaders and the NFL’s upper brass were a step forward for social injustice. The Coalition persuaded the NFL to commit $89 million to social-just causes (Thomas).
It’s fair to say Malcolm Jenkins is acting based on his personal experience and what he has seen in social media. But one could also say that Malcolm Jenkins was acting through masculine honor beliefs. Masculine honor beliefs are the beliefs that a man’s responsibility is to defend himself, his reputation, family, community, and property against threats and insults, using aggression or deviant behavior, if necessary (Stratmoen, Lawless and Saucier).
The refusal to stand during the National Anthem, like many other things, has pros and cons. One of the reasons for refusing to stand is when one believes the U.S. isn’t living up to the ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice for all. Another reason would be when a celebrity or another high-profile individual does it, it creates astonishment and people start paying attention. A third reason for it is that it is a form of freedom of speech, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. On the other side, refusing to stand shows disrespect for our flag and members of the Armed Forces. Another reason against refusing to stand is ineffective and counterproductive. A third reason against is that it that many people become angry and divides our country (ProCon.org).
The combination of social and racial injustice issues and professional sports is not relatively new. In 1965, the American Football League (AFL) was to hold its all-star game in New Orleans, LA. Due to the extreme amount of discrimination they faced, 21 African-American players boycotted and refused to play if the game was to be held in New Orleans as scheduled. Because of this protest, AFL officials moved the game to Houston, TX (Waxman).
Clem Daniels, a former running back for the Oakland Raiders, led the 1965 boycott, and gave his thoughts about the National Anthem protests today.
I would have told Colin Kaepernick a long time ago that his approach right now may not be the most sensible approach to the problem that we have.” Daniels says. “My take on that is, you get with your leaders within your community, the black community, and discuss the most apt way to approach the protest and do it from a collective standpoint. And right now, the best thing you can do is play football, earn the money, save the money and put yourself in a position so you can help the cause on a long-term basis. (Waxman).
The United States is not the best country in the world. But it certainly isn’t the worst. As a retired member of the U.S. Air Force and former contractor who has worked overseas, I have been to worse. The National Anthem is a symbol of our country and pays respect to those who have risked their lives, been injured, or have died defending our country (ProCon.org).
The National Anthem, like other of our national symbols, represents everything the United States is and isn’t. It represents everything good and bad about our country. Just because there are one or several things wrong with our country doesn’t mean we should say everything about it is wrong. We are very fortunate to live in the United States. To stand for our National Anthem pays honor to the many freedoms we have and enjoy. As New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees states, ‘[I]t’s an oxymoron that you’re sitting down, disrespecting that flag that has given you the freedom to speak out’ (ProCon.org). Simply put, to kneel in opposition to one thing is to kneel in opposition to everything.