The NFL Kneels On The Right Side Of History

Players and coaches respond to President Trump’s remarks with a show of solidarity

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Baseball is normally known as America’s pastime, but there is a lot to (American) football that makes it more quintessentially American. The violent struggle to gain yards hearkens back to America’s past, from it’s conquering of lands “from sea to shining sea,” to the taming of the West. The sport is tailor-made as a conveyor of American capitalism; games are about 3 hours long, but there is only 11 minutes of actual play, with commercials filling a large part of the time in between. Thanksgiving football games are often family traditions, while the Super Bowl is a holiday in its own right. Foreign viewers introduced to football are often bewildered by the almost propagandistic undertones of patriotism during games: from the singing of the national anthem to the rather random veneration of the military during games.

It is precisely the former action that has thrust football into the throes of political controversy. Last year, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in a show of protest against police brutality and racial injustice. The response he received for this and his other statements on racism in America mirrored the divisions in the US today: Kaepernick has become something of a folk hero to progressives, and persona non grata to conservatives. Kaepernick is currently unemployed, unsigned by any of the league’s 32 teams, a fact which many believe is due to his outspokenness. However, other players have begun to follow his example and kneel for the anthem.

This drew the ire of President Trump. In a speech in Alabama on Saturday, Trump said that the proper response to a player kneeling during the anthem would be to “get that son of a bitch off the field and tell him, ‘you’re fired!’”

This was not the same irrational, hateful blabberings which we have come to expect from Trump. This was campaigner Trump and the comments were very much premeditated. After continuous disappointments from the GOP-controlled Congress, and Trump’s backroom dealing with Democrats a few weeks ago, Trump wanted to give his base a shot in the arm. What better way to do so that to deride those speaking out on racism, in the name of “protecting the flag.”

NFL players and coaches responded in kind. More than 200 players knelt, others decided to lock arms, and several teams even stayed in their locker rooms during the anthem.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also released a statement, declaring Trump’s “lack of respect” to the players.

The decision to make a stand is not necessarily an easy one. Teams and players, particularly those playing in conservative areas, will face ire from fans, many of whom are conservative, and possibly sponsors. It can be argued that this is a small price for millionaire players and owners to pay, but anyone who takes action to raise awareness when they don’t have to deserves praise.

The NFL Got This One Right (For Once)

It wasn’t necessarily expected that the league would take this stance. Goodell had approached Kaepernick’s actions with only a cool neutrality, disputing claims of a freezing out of the quarterback by the league.

The NFL itself can hardly be described as progressive. There are many players and owners who are conservative.

Goodell and owners have also often approached criticism lobbed their way with callous indifference. Take player safety, for example. There is a growing body of evidence that shows players are receiving a disturbing amount of head injuries, most recently punctuated with the news that former tight end Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide while in prison convicted of murder, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Yet no concrete action has been taken from the league to limit head injuries, save for a few minor rule changes and some PR ads. It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare the league’s handling of players’ health to that of GOP congressmen and national healthcare; neither group seems to care much for the respective issue, aside from how it affects them financially.

On Sunday, however, the league made the right call. Trump and his family issued some mild criticism, but that hardly matters. In unifying against President Trump’s comments, the NFL achieved two very important things.

First, in allowing players to protest against racial injustice freely, they stood on the right side of a critical issue plaguing the country and gave it another national platform. The league’s popularity with conservatives is especially important to this end. Many conservatives, from within the comforts of their respective echo chambers, often deny the existence of racial disparity in America. It will become much harder for such individuals to continue burying their heads in the sand, if and when their team continues to remind them they are wrong every Sunday.

There is a chance (though small) of some of these conservative viewers getting angry enough at the protests to stop watching. But if the league cleans up its act, they stand to gain at least one viewer from the #Resistance for every upset conservative they lose.

Patriotism In The Era Of Right-Wing Extremism

White supremacists walk into Lee park surrounded by counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, VA — Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017 (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

With their actions, NFL players have also issued an important declaration about the nature of true patriotism. Trump’s base often laments a loss of respect for “the flag” and “God and country,” especially during the Obama years (though their displays of Confederate flags somehow seem not to be included in the list of unpatriotic actions). They saw Obama’s questioning of American hegemony, his deference to the rest of the world, and his criticisms of the US itself, as downright un-American. Many were drawn to Trump, who seemed to herald a revival of good old fashioned American patriotism.

However, the brand of “patriotism” Trump supporters prefer seems to be growing shallower by the day. They seem to want only to be reassured that America is still the “best” and “freest” country in the world, despite what reality (“fake news” in Trump parlance) may tell them. They prefer talk of “protecting the Constitution” to actually reading it.

This blind idolatry of Trump has served to cheapen the very symbols of American patriotism. After all, at a time when the Trump administration is eroding constitutional rights of individuals and effectively attempting to tear apart democratic institutions, one could be forgiven for failing to understand what “respecting the flag” really means. Apparently, denying the right to speak out against injustice for the sake of a national anthem is all that is needed to be deemed a “patriot” in Trump’s America.

NFL players showed these people, and the rest of the country, what it means to be a true American. It entails standing up (or kneeling, as the case may be) when the principles of equality and freedom promised to us by the Founding Fathers have not been fulfilled. It involves following the tradition of peaceful protest set forth by American heroes before us — Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith — in order to make a declaration against continued societal injustice, and demand its resolution.

This is the America that Trump supporters have forsaken. Actions such as those on Sunday are needed to ensure that such an America endures.

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