On August 26, 2016, San Francisco 49ers back-up quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited what would ultimately become one of the most divisive and emotionally-charged issues in recent U.S. social history. Rather than standing for the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner, Kaepernick remained seated as a show of protest over what he claimed to be systemic social oppression of minorities, in particular people of color. One week later, when Kaepernick opted to kneel on one knee rather than remain sitting in protest, the contemporary take a knee movement was officially born, and with it a contentious debate that rages even more fiercely over a year later. Kaepernick stated, “There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren’t being held accountable for, and that’s something that needs to change…and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country – is representing the way that it’s supposed to – I’ll stand” (Dubin). To many, the actions of Kaepernick and those athletes, professional or otherwise, who have chosen to follow his lead are those of heroes. To many more, including President Donald Trump, the act of taking a knee is less heroic than it is unpatriotic, an insult to the brave men and women who have fought throughout history to protect the United States and its ideals. Perhaps the very notion of mixing such partisan social objection simply has no place in sports, that such overt political protests detract from the comradery of the competition and ruin what should be an escapist celebration free from the trials and tribulations of reality. It is a complex, multifaceted issue that draws highly emotional responses from all sides.
From the outset, Kaepernick has claimed that he never meant to be disrespectful to the military, stating, “I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country…They fight for freedom. They fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening” (Dubin). Despite Kaepernick’s insistence that taking a knee during the national anthem is not meant to be insulting to the military, many veterans disagree. Jack Downing, president of Massachusetts-based Soldier On, a non-profit organization working in conjunction with the Department of Veteran Affairs to fight veteran homelessness, claims that many Vietnam veterans “came back and nobody said thank you. They weren’t accepted, and they see this as another form of rejection” (MacQuarrie). It is not just individuals with military experience who object to the protests, however, as many rank and file citizens have expressed a similar feeling of disappointment with the athletes. In one particularly articulate opinion piece originally written for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2016, Francis Deasey, a Philadelphia-based lawyer, presents a thoughtful and logical case against behavior he labels “disrespectful and unappreciative of those who proudly wear the flag on their sleeve” (Deasey). Although obviously a very personal, emotionally-charged and opinionated piece, Deasey does serve as a voice for those Americans who feel that failing to stand for the national anthem is not only unacceptable but also hypocritical:
When those who kneel during our national anthem need the services of those Americans who proudly wear the flag, who do they call? Certainly not their supporters. They call those same fellow Americans who proudly wear the flag. And those people who respond to calls for help never take a knee. They respond without inquiring about race, ethnic background, social status, or political persuasion. They simply respond and, in many instances, risk their own lives in doing so. That is what the American flag is all about and that is what makes this country great. (Deasey)
For those who might be able to consider forgiving the athletes for their disrespectful behavior in light of the sincere message behind it, observers argue that taking a knee “is gaining multiple, confused meanings – ones different from, and sometimes contradictory to, what Kaepernick meant by the gesture” (St. Felix). It is no longer a noble act of defiance spurred by a desire to fight racial injustice, rather it is now an expression of anti-Trump sentiment or a test of First Amendment rights. Ironically, from a legal perspective, NFL games are actually private events, not public proceedings, therefore the league is entitled to impose whatever regulations it wishes regarding the national anthem without it being a breach of constitutional law (Zick). Intentional or not, there is a case to be made that taking a knee during the national anthem simply sends the wrong message.
Perhaps the real problem is not so much the message as it is the medium. The use of professional sports as a platform from which to launch political protest is considered by many to be contrary to the true meaning of sport. At the heart of the issue is the primary reason fans watch sports in the first place: escapism. Social psychologists have long argued that spectator sports, in contrast to the often complicated and depressing problems of daily existence, offer “a tidy, regulated environment that serves as a tranquil retreat from the complexities of everyday life” (Smith 56). In a 2013 study of online baseball fan forums, the study’s author concludes that, “The social mode of the blogging communities aligned neatly with the popular ideology of sport as an institution that brings people together as respite from taxing daily life. This cultural context generates specific social expectations of sport, including the belief that sport should be full of positive emotions” (McGovern 341). Similarly, in an examination of the differences between traditional sports fans and those who engage in fantasy sports for the purpose of accumulating points in competition against other fantasy players, researchers suggest that:
Fantasy sports typically are played among friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, meaning that when one is engaged in fantasy sport play, he or she also consumes the games with a more active focus on the ramifications on other parts of life. Defeating a co-worker or lamenting a friend’s poor fantasy performance requires a sport fan to think about more than just the game they are consuming in the media, making far more connections to daily life and, in turn, lowering a sense of escape. (Billings and Ruihley 21).
Both studies indicate that sports are more enjoyable to fans when they are simply about the game and free from connections with the fans’ daily reality from which they are seeking escape, lending credence to the argument that politically-motivated protests – such as the taking a knee movement – simply do not belong in sports.
Ultimately, taking a knee has people talking. The dialogue is often heated, almost always divisive and intensely emotional. Conversations about social injustice invariably are, but it is only through such painful transitions that societies overcome their internal differences and grow. This is why the national anthem protests are not only acceptable, but perhaps even necessary. In their observations of the current protests in the United States, European sociologists Thiel et al. warn that, “Silencing controversies instead of deliberately discussing them is not only undemocratic (and therefore incompatible with the principles of international sport), but also harms the system instead of fostering its development for the benefit of all” (254). No problem will ever be solved by running away from it, and no disagreement can ever be resolved without discussion, heated or otherwise. The professional athletes who take a knee are simply making the opening remarks in a very badly needed conversation.
Is taking a knee during the national anthem truly a sign of disrespect? Ironically, kneeling has traditionally been a sign of respect, the lowering of oneself before another in an act of submissiveness (Keltner and Smith). Standing for the anthem is certainly a tradition, but it is not a requirement. In the 1943 case of the West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein” (Zick). There is no official requirement to stand for the national anthem, rather there is a widely held expectation that one will stand. Like all collective rituals, standing for the anthem promotes a sense of group loyalty, identity and cohesiveness, and any deviation from this expected societal norm is likely to be met with resistance (Hobson). Claiming that taking a knee during the anthem is disrespectful is only valid insofar that it does not respect the status quo, an honored tradition or a societal norm. To further claim that the protests are insulting to those who have fought to make America the free democratic state it is today is not only inaccurate, but also illogical. Every soldier who has served the United States in any way has done so to protect each and every citizen’s right to have a voice in how his/her country is run, which means every American has the right to engage in peaceful protest of what he/she believes to be unjustifiable repression and blatant systemic discrimination. That is why John Middlemas, a 97 year old WWII veteran from Missouri and a Caucasian, chose not to oppose the kneeling NFL, but rather opted to pose for a photo in which he too takes a knee as a show of support for the athletes. Accompanying the photo was the caption, “Those kids have every right to protest” (Wong). Not standing for the national anthem is clearly a violation of a societal norm and a beloved tradition, therefore it is bound to be upsetting to a great many Americans and justifiably so, but to label such behavior as disrespectful or insulting is not an accurate or reasonable understanding of the situation.
To argue that political activism has no place in sports is certainly understandable, as playing and watching sports is an effective coping strategy for dealing with the often overwhelming stresses of life. To make the assertion that sports and politics do not mix, however, is erroneous. The pre-existing relationship between the Department of Defense and the National Football League is a mutually beneficial one in which the Pentagon has spent millions of dollars to turn football games into recruitment opportunities. As veterans and active servicemen hold field-size American flags and military bands play triumphant marches from the end zones, fighter jets and bombers fly over the stadiums in an unmatched display of American military pride and patriotism, a publicity campaign that has provided the armed forces with enough volunteers that “the forces met their recruitment targets for the first time in years” (Gilmore). NFL games have served as political stages long before Colin Kaepernick ever took a knee. Moreover, to argue that political activism and sports should never mix despite the inherent value of the issue being protested is nothing more than pretending to respect the issue while simultaneously discrediting it (Thiel et al. 253). Claiming that the athletes’ protest is a case of the wrong execution of the right idea and citing the sacredness of the playing field as justification for opposing the protests is just another way for society to bury its head in the sand and ignore a very real problem that has already been ignored for much too long.
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