CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
MATTHEW LEWIS/Getty Images/File 2017
The national anthem is now more than a patriotic song played before a spectator sport is played. It has become a spectator sport of its own due to the activism of NFL players calling attention to social injustice and the incendiary remarks of President Trump about protesting players. The anthem requires a scorecard, as people want to catalog who stands, who kneels, who locks arms, who stays in the locker room during its playing.
All eyes will be on the anthem again this Sunday, even if Fox cameras won’t be, after last Sunday and Monday featured an unprecedented display of demonstrations that overshadowed the games and polarized a football-crazed nation. The display came in response to Trump disparaging players who choose to kneel as sons of bitches and saying they should be fired at a Sept. 22 rally in Huntsville, Ala.
The protests during the anthem are anathema to some, including a group of Patriots fans in Swansea who burned Patriots paraphernalia after 18 members of the team took a knee during the anthem prior to last Sunday’s game against Houston. But the protests are unlikely to disappear until the issues fueling them — racial inequality and prejudicial justice — are acknowledged. Trying to shame or chastise African-American players into abandoning the protests is a poor game plan for the president or anyone else.
Right now, there is bemoaning of the method without acknowledgment of the message. It’s fine to disagree on the scope of the problem, but to fail to acknowledge it at all or show complete indifference to it is enabling injustice.
The anthem protests are a personal issue on both sides. It’s understandable why many of the brave men and women who have served or are serving in our military would take offense. They have a perspective that can’t be fully appreciated unless you’ve been in their shoes. The same is true for the experience of black Americans.
To understand the psychology behind the protests, look to the words of the late African-American author James Baldwin in a famous 1965 civil rights debate with the conservative commentator William F. Buckley. Baldwin said, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”
The common trope about millionaire athletes who have it made and should just be grateful is spurious. If you’re Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts, one of the players who knelt last Sunday, when you don’t have your Patriots uniform on and you’re not on a football field chances are you’re not immediately recognized by society as and afforded the privileges of a professional athlete. You’re just a black American.
That’s part of the issue for the athletes. They know they have to exist in the real world, not just the football fantasy land (and fantasy football land) the NFL creates for the sporting public. That’s why the notion that the players shouldn’t use their platform for activism because it taints people’s respite from the real world rings hollow.
It’s easy for some to dismiss and discredit the anthem protests as un-American and inappropriate. The issues being protested don’t affect them directly or impact their lives. For them, it’s not a threat, but a nuisance that affects their enjoyment of the NFL. That’s not being a racist. It’s not being empathetic.
A common complaint is that these acts of civil disobedience are disrespectful to the flag and to the military, even though the players that have taken a knee, such as Patriots captain Devin McCourty, have taken pains to say they’re not disrespecting the military. Some protesters have family members who served.
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews said he would kneel until the president apologized. Matthews’s father served in the military and his late brother was a Marine who was killed in Afghanistan. Matthews, who was a college teammate of Colin Kaepernick’s at Nevada, has pledged to donate $75,000 to organizations working in “oppressed communities.”
But if you still consider these demonstrations as dishonoring the military and the flag, let’s apply that indignation equally. Anyone upset about the anthem protests for those reasons should also want the Confederate flag to be banned and all Confederate statues to be removed.
What’s more disrespectful to the American flag than flying the flag of a renegade nation that attacked the United States? What’s more disrespectful to the American military than statues commemorating men who plotted to kill hundreds of thousands of US soldiers?
This is not new territory for our country or for sports. There was deep division about what constituted patriotism during the Vietnam War, which sparked incidents of not observing the flag. In 1968, US Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists in protest on the medal stand in Mexico City during the national anthem.
In Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” published in 1972, he expressed how the hatred and unabashed racism he faced breaking baseball’s color line in 1947 affected how he felt about the national anthem. Robinson served in the Army. He wrote, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
Despite its public support last week, the NFL would like the kneeling to stop.
Last Tuesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell held a summit with several NFL owners and players, including Patriots owner and Trump contributor Robert Kraft, and players Matthew Slater and McCourty. The message from Goodell and the owners seemed to be that players should realize their message is getting lost in frustration over how it’s being expressed.
It’s unlikely that as many players across the league will kneel or demonstrate during the anthem this week.
Protests are meant to create progress. We feel so far from that right now. Titans tight end Delanie Walker received death threats after he said that fans that wanted to boycott NFL games because of the anthem protests were welcome to do so.
Expect players to continue to take a stand for social justice, whether they’re kneeling for the anthem or not, until we can at least acknowledge not everyone enjoys the same American experience.
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