Is there a more respectful protest in all of sports than kneeling down beside teammates, arms linked, acutely aware of the national anthem currently being performed by some gifted 16-year-old on a Sunday afternoon? Because other than exercising the right to vote, I’m not sure I can name one.
This weekend in the NFL was inspiring to many, annoying to some, and a wad of spit in the face of patriotism to those upset at multimillionaire athletes allegedly disrespecting the flag. I like to think I can argue both ways on most sports topics (the Titans are so stupidly over/underrated!) and on the surface I can understand the basic points of those irritated by the national anthem kneeling. For clarity’s sake, I’m talking about generally reasonable people offended by the perceived disrespect to country, not the violently disagreeable Facebook commenters who still haven’t woken up to how disrespectful our own president is to the flag and all it stands for.
The argument goes thusly — these men (and women, I see you WNBA) kneeling on Sunday or staying off the field altogether are paid entertainers raking in unimaginable paychecks, the least they can do is stand for the national anthem. Perhaps the country is deeply flawed, but politics and sports are separate spheres. If anything, sports act as a release from the cares of the world for a bit — Lord knows humanity needs a few Trump-free hours of television every now and then. Sunday afternoons are for blocked punts and acrobatic catches, not political commentary.
I get it.
But let’s unpack this a little. First, should it matter what these guys (and girls, seriously are you guys watching the WNBA finals? Game one was incredible) do for a living or if they are indeed millionaires? Since when did anyone give much thought or attention to the silent protests of the poor? Are we really asking professional athletes to do nothing with the valuable platform they’ve earned themselves as superstars? If sports icons like LeBron James and Steph Curry and Tom Brady — oh, right…yeah strike that last one — are expected to remain silent, who exactly is supposed to speak up?
Athletes acting as catalysts for social change is not a new development. Muhammed Ali was probably as notorious for his work on the mic as he was in the ring. I personally toured San Jose’s campus over the weekend as proud statues of Tommie Smith and John Carlos underwent renovations. Protesting on the world’s stage is a privilege athletes earn by virtue of us all agreeing to point cameras at them.
As for the perceived disrespect, consider how typically athletes bounce up and down on the sidelines “staying loose” and thinking footballish thoughts. They sip gatorade and eagerly anticipate the game’s opening kickoff. That’s what us viewers do, too — we change out of sunday clothes and gnaw on chicken wings and flip the game on without much thought to the anthem at all, unless lyrics are embarrassingly forgotten or it was otherwise terrible in some way.
Now, athletes pay attention. We pay attention. Hopefully we spend an extra beat thinking about words that have taken on new meaning since their original inception. For many, the anthem and the flag are symbols that stand for America with the capital ‘A’, everything good and free and covered in barbeque sauce. But that’s not what the song is about, not really. The national anthem is a story of resiliency. The image of a tattered banner hanging on through all-out warfare ‘til “dawn’s early light” is not one of dominance or arrogance or “‘Murica,” but of reserved strength and humility.
You see a lot of hubris on the gridiron. Baker Mayfield planted a flag on his opponent’s freaking midfield logo two weeks back. Richard Sherman drew three penalties in a single play on Sunday, one for pass interference and two more for being a loudmouth. I’m pretty sure Odell Beckham Jr. fake-peed on the field after a touchdown this week. There are dozens of examples — many of which unapologetically add to the spectacle of it all. It probably bears mentioning that if one was to be on the edge of denouncing the NFL as an organization unworthy of their time, there are several other hills to die on more powerful than this one, including but not limited to: inconsistent player discipline, evidence of CTE’s devastating effects, players’ repeated mistreatment of women, the baffling existence of a team named the Redskins and Chris Collinsworth’s ongoing employment.
Kneeling for the anthem isn’t one of those instances. It’s a reserved way — I would argue perhaps the most reserved way — of drawing attention to an issue plaguing our country, a silent shout to millions who tune in every Sunday night to pay closer attention. These guys aren’t spitting on the flag or turning their backs to the flag or just straight-up ignoring the flag. In fact, they aren’t even kneeling to protest the flag, but rather in protest of the racism they’ve experienced firsthand and those turning a blind eye toward it.
Is it really so difficult to put ourselves in their shoes? I see people of faith — people of my faith — ranting on social media about how they’ll no longer watch the NFL, about how those who kneel should leave the country, as if our own religious forebears weren’t systematically forced to flee from their homes. As if we could hardly expect something of that magnitude to ever happen to us in 2017, even as we stand safely on the sidelines of a parallel moment in history while others kneel for our attention. As if we wouldn’t want our peaceful pleas for understanding met with support and not misplaced national pride.
Before this weekend, it’s possible these anthem protests served a selfish purpose — players surely like to be in the spotlight, that’s why they play on Sunday. But now, with the president pulling anthem protests to the forefront of national discussion and the NFL’s PR people working feverishly to stand behind their players (a few months too late), it’s grown into something more.
I get if kneeling for the anthem makes you queasy, but that may just be the point. Let’s be uncomfortable with the drought of understanding and empathy we’re currently weathering and fix it. I expect athletes will continue kneeling for the anthem in an effort to raise a nation’s troubling racism to the level of discussion where solutions happen and attitudes change. My hope is that such protests will no longer be perceived as disrespect for the stars and stripes, but instead a showing of profound belief in what that banner stands for.