The Danger of National Anthem Protests

I don’t often write about important issues. This blog, like a thousand others, exists to analyze and opine on player performances and coaching decisions on the field, court, or ice – often with healthy measures of humor, hyperbole, or haikuery. But in the last month, many people who weren’t in the habit of contemplating racial inequality or police brutality have begun to do just that, due to the silent protests by black football players like Colin Kaepernick, Arian Foster, and Malcolm Jenkins during the national anthem.

Kaepernick, who began the protests during the NFL preseason, explained why he chose to protest the anthem, saying

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Jenkins, who first protested before Monday night’s Eagles – Bears game by raising his fist during the anthem, said “I don’t plan on kneeling, but it’s my own way of expressing myself with the same exact message. I support what Kap is doing.”

That people who ordinarily wouldn’t pause to consider these serious problems are now confronted with reminders of inequality and injustice while they attempt to watch football games is exactly the point. It is also one of the reasons that many football fans have responded with vitriol towards the players that dare to rattle their comfortable gameday routines. Even the more measured critiques miss the point, like that of Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney, who said last week when asked about Colin Kaepernick’s protests:

I think everybody has the right to express himself in that regard, but I don’t think it’s good to be a distraction to your team. I don’t think it’s good to use the team as a platform. I totally disagree with that. Not his protest, but I just think there’s a right way to do things. I don’t think two wrongs make a right. Never have, never will. I think it just creates more divisiveness, more division.

Swinney was echoing what many in and out of football circles have claimed – support for the idea of protest, but not the chosen medium. Not like this. Not during a football game. It creates a distraction. It’s not uniting people.

The fact that distraction is precisely the point of protest, appears to be lost on these detractors. What good is a protest that is conducted in such a mild form that no one notices? Millions of Americans tune in to football games with intentions to crack open a cold beverage and simply root for their favorite team – forgetting about “real life” for a while. The actions of players like Kaepernick and Jenkins have disrupted their comfortable Sunday afternoons, but with all the debate over how these protests have taken place, we are in danger of losing sight of the why.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to relax and forget about the world’s problems for a few hours. However, for many white Americans, watching football is not a break from, but a continuation of their ignorance of the injustice that confronts people of color in the United States. In fact, it is one of the many aspects of privilege that white Americans can go days, weeks, or longer without considering the problems of inequality and violence which are inescapable for people of color.

For centuries, white Americans have been entertained by talented black men and women without giving a thought to those people’s socioeconomic status in this country. If Kaepernick or Jenkins cause white viewers to seriously consider “what are they so upset about?” that is a start. If a sports fan who’s never heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates or John Lewis reads an article on a sports blog about race in America, that’s a start. If the attention surrounding these protests causes them to sincerely ask a black coworker what their feelings are on the topic, that’s progress.

The greatest danger in analyzing these national anthem protests is that by placing the method of protest under a microscope and arguing about who it may offend, we may lose the message itself. Taking a knee or raising a fist during a patriotic song will not end police brutality and racism, but it may get people that otherwise would never even consider those problems talking about it. It’s hard to address inequalities that many in America refuse to recognize even exist. It’s a small, though far from inconsequential step for those who have taken it, but I believe it has and will continue to generate important conversations in America.

If that’s upsetting and uncomfortable for some people, so be it. As Jenkins said Saturday, “When you’re trying to change anything, there’s no comfortable way to change anything, and so if somebody gets upset, it’s probably because they’re not listening.”

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