The NFL has reached the portion of the preseason that most resembles the real thing. But there’s one element of the all-important third preseason game that remains unresolved relative to what it will look like in the regular season. Do you know where your NFL players will be permitted to be or what posture they’ll be allowed to assume for the national anthem? It shouldn’t matter, because the protests were never about the anthem.
This Sunday will mark the two-year anniversary of Colin Kaepernick first gaining notice for protesting during the national anthem while in uniform — he had stayed seated for the anthem in two prior San Francisco 49ers preseason games that he didn’t suit up for — when he remained seated on the bench for the anthem during a preseason game on Aug. 26, 2016. Famously, he switched to kneeling afterward.
Two years later, much to the frustration of the players involved in advocating for the issues at the heart of the peaceful demonstrations, the focus is still in the wrong place. People are fixated on who is not standing. But it has always been about what the players stand for — the eradication of racial inequality, discrimination, and social injustice.
Instead of being so concerned about standing at attention, how about paying attention to the issues that spurred the protests?
Before last Thursday’s preseason game between the Patriots and the Eagles at Gillette Stadium, Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins, co-founder of the Players Coalition, which has turned activism into action, wore a T-shirt that said, “You Aren’t Listening.” It echoed his clever non-verbal interview this offseason. After the game, he was asked which way he thought the protests were going to go. “We’ve been going one way the entire time and that’s toward progress,” he said.
Too many people are still focusing on the method and not the message and motivation behind the protests, which in the case of players like Jenkins haven’t involved kneeling. He remained in the locker room last Thursday.
By their very nature, protests are designed to be disruptive and startling. At some point, though, you have to move past outrage and into action. Players have done that, pushing for reforms in their communities. Many of their detractors have not. They’re not interested in the message because racial inequality has no material effect on their existence while the protests offend their sensibilities.
Aware of this, players have made a conscious effort this offseason to steer the discussion toward their civic accomplishments.
Socially conscious players such as Patriots safety Devin McCourty, a member of the Players Coalition, have helped advocate for legislation. McCourty, his brother, Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty, and Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater helped push through a criminal justice reform bill in Massachusetts that raised the minimum age for criminal prosecution as a juvenile from age 7 to 12.
The trio also moderated a debate featuring the candidates for Suffolk County district attorney and championed an education funding reform bill that would have reset the formula for funding public schools, making it more equitable for lower-income communities.
Players have gone on police ride-alongs and called for overhauling mandatory sentencing. They’ve pushed through a bill in Louisiana that restored voting rights for those convicted of a felony who are on probation or parole, after a five-year period following their release from prison. Chris Long donated his entire 2017 base salary to charity. Kaepernick gave $1 million to charity, as promised.
“At the end of the day, negative or positive, whether it’s people praising us or it’s the president criticizing us, it keeps the conversation at the forefront,” said Jenkins. “So, while we have the microphone, I think it’s important that we continue to steer the conversation back to the issues because while everybody wants to get upset about whether or not we’re using the two minutes before a game correctly or not, not enough people are upset that there are police continuously abusing people.
“We got a police department in Baltimore that is completely out of control. We’ve got kids that don’t have access to a quality education, that don’t have access to the American dream. We’re incarcerating more people than anybody in the world, yet we want to claim we are this great America, and these ideals that we hold dear we’re just not living up to every day . . . We want to keep steering that narrative, steering that direction, steering the attention to the issues.”
The NFL’s anthem policy remains unresolved after the ill-conceived, ill-advised, pandering-to-the-president policy that team owners unilaterally imposed in May was suspended in July.
That policy, which subjected players to fines and suspensions, felt like a step back from the league’s decision to pledge $89 million in a partnership with players and the joint “Let’s Listen Together” campaign highlighting social justice initiatives.
The policy, which also enabled teams to determine their own discipline for players who declined to stand for the anthem and fined teams for personnel not standing, was put on pause after there was backlash to a purported Miami Dolphins policy that allowed for four-game suspensions for not standing.
The NFL and NFL Players Association are working to hammer out a new anthem policy for the 2018 season.
Anthem hardliners like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones remain resolute that players be forced to stand or face discipline. Jenkins has referred to Jones as a bully.
Recently, Jones was skewered by Dallas TV personality Dale Hansen for leaving his hat on and talking through the national anthem before a Cowboys practice.
It’s hard for the NFL to claim that the anthem protests are hurting business when each team pulled in $255 million last season in national revenue, a 4.9 percent increase from the previous season, according to the public financials of the Green Bay Packers.
The frustrating part for Jenkins and others preaching reform is that if all the energy and effort being put into debating the league’s policy and decrying the player protests as unpatriotic could be channeled into ameliorating the issues highlighted by the protests, there’s so much that could be accomplished.
“To me, that is where the frustration lies,” said Jenkins. “People are so articulate and thoughtful when they put together a hateful tweet about why players shouldn’t be doing anything during the anthem, and yet when they hear about an injustice; they see a video of somebody just being flat-out abused by law enforcement; they hear all these things that are happening, these statistics, then all of a sudden they can’t put together a sentence.
“That’s the frustrating part. My whole goal is to make people wrestle with that and force people to address that.”
That was always the aim — to compel people to address the issues. The players have. When will others follow?