Last year, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sent shockwaves throughout American sports media when he kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality toward people of color in America. Today, Kaepernick is paying the price for his activism on the field—he remains unsigned this season. But Kaepernick has not “lost” or “failed” in his endeavor to improve social justice in America simply because he has been barred from an opportunity that his talent merits. Kaepernick might not be in the NFL right now, but he has provided the impetus to change political activism in the world of sports for the long term. The events that have taken place since he first decided to kneel during the national anthem demonstrate that football and politics can no longer be clearly distinguished from one another.
A full list of players who have protested during the anthem (published August 22) shows that the number of demonstrations has increased substantially since Kaepernick’s initial protest over a year ago. After August’s racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Philadelphia Eagles player Chris Long, who is from the city, became the first white player to take part in the protests when he placed his hand on teammate Malcolm Jenkins’ shoulder as he raised a fist during the anthem. The Cleveland Browns took part in the NFL’s largest anthem protest, involving a dozen players as well as local police officers. Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett has announced his plans to kneel for the national anthem throughout this season after he accused the Las Vegas Police Department of racially profiling him. Today, you can scarcely watch an NFL game that does not feature players from either sideline engaged in some type of anthem protest. The cameras and announcers certainly do their part in drawing attention to it.
As the anthem protests have become a regular part of our football entertainment viewing, opposition to them has also escalated. President Trump, who has previously taken credit for Kaepernick’s unemployment, said that players engaging in national anthem protests are “ruining the game” with their “total disrespect of our heritage” and of “everything we stand for.” He even went so far as to pose a profanity-laced challenge to NFL owners to fire players who protest the anthem, and to NFL fans to leave games or turn off their television if the protests continue. Many football fans have voiced similar complaints, as viewers have threatened to stop watching the NFL if their teams participate in any type of demonstration involving the anthem. Some justify their annoyance by referencing the disrespect Trump mentioned; others say they simply want to watch football as an escape from their daily lives rather than being continually reminded of political or social circumstances.
Criticism of NFL players and other athletes exercising their First Amendment rights has found legitimacy in the White House, but athletes’ and sports organizations’ resolve to not be bullied and suppressed has escalated in return. On the Sunday after Trump made his comments, an estimated five hundred players engaged in some form of protest. Even several NFL owners, including Trump’s friend Robert Kraft, came out in opposition to his comments. On the same weekend, Trump sparred with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors and drew condemnation from NBA legends LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Gregg Popovich; meanwhile, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to engage in an anthem protest. Trump’s attempts to marshal his base against political expression in sports only further forces sports icons to engage in political speech that opposes him. His divisive tirade against protesting NFL players has forced our football and sports culture, which had already been used as a platform by Kaepernick, to become even more politicized as athletes respond to attacks against them. Sports fans often wish that their teams would just “stick to sports,” but doing that becomes impossible when athletes trying to draw attention to social issues are misunderstood, ridiculed, and threatened.
In their fervent disgust toward athletes whom they view as having disrespected America and the flag, upset fans have either failed to understand or knowingly disregarded the reason NFL players like Kaepernick began using football as a political platform in the first place: to protest police brutality, racial inequality, and social injustice towards people of color. Clearly, there is a failure of communication here. Rather than address the racial inequality and social injustice to which the protesters are trying to draw attention, many fans decry the disrespect of America’s flag, anthem, and military that they allege is occurring. On the other hand, NFL players engaged in protests have asserted that they in no way intend to come across as disrespectful. One side is trying to use sports as a platform to send a political message; the other side tries to bury that message by cloaking their opposition to it in their complaints about disrespectful and unpatriotic conduct.
Trump and the irritated football fans he speaks for appear either to be either ignorant of the commendable ideals that these players are kneeling for or unsympathetic to their message. They want the anthem protests to dissipate because they embody a movement for social and racial equality that runs counter to their narratives about America. But neither Trump nor his supporters can stifle these anthem protests with continued outrage. The sports world in America has responded to criticism of its politicization by becoming even more politicized. The controversy surrounding the anthem protests and the continued conversation over the extent to which politics can be intertwined with sports is not going to end any time soon.
Some anti-protest fans are simply ignorant of the issues that players are protesting. But there are many more who do understand. They hide their opposition to athletes’ political positions in their grievances over the intersection of sports and politics. Those who are upset about these anthem protests are now being forced to ask why NFL players have politicized football at all. If they want to get back to sports, they must partake in a constructive dialogue about issues such as police brutality and racial injustices instead of trying to change the anthem protest narrative to better validate their anger. Unless that happens, socially conscious athletes will continue to politicize sports, using their high-profile profession as a platform from which to advocate for change in a country whose people are struggling to come to terms with their differences.
The “stick to sports” mantra is gone. Now, Americans have to figure out how sports can help bring out the best in our politics.
Aman Tiku is a columnist for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.