On Sunday, even though I hate football, I found myself combing news coverage for all of the NFL games being played that day. Why? Our president, during a rally in Alabama decided that he was going to direct his misguided ire at football players who have chosen to peacefully protest racial inequality and police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem.
“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!” he said, speaking of what NFL team owners should be saying in response to the players choosing to take a knee. Thankfully, the NFL doesn’t feel the same way.
Because contrary to what people choose to believe, you are not required to stand up for the national anthem. So this Sunday, more players took a knee than had done so previously (and hopefully they will every game day from now until the Super Bowl). The movement spread like wildfire on social media with the hashtag #TakeAKnee so that non-athletes could participate and support the cause as well.
I was not a huge fan of Colin Kaepernick, but since he began using his platform for activism, I have changed my tune. When 75% of the NFL is black, the issues that affect everyday black America become issues that affect the league as well.
Recently, Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett said that he was held by police officers at gunpoint during a trip to Las Vegas. This is a professional football player whom you see on your TV, making a hefty sum for his athletic abilities. But when he steps off the field and takes off that jersey, he’s just a regular black man, subject to the systemic racism the rest of the POC community is up against.
This is what players are protesting when they take a knee. They are protesting the killing of innocent people simply because of the color of their skin by the hands that are supposed to protect them. Black men and women are systematically being taken out by white police officers who operate on the notion of “shoot first, ask questions later.” For black Americans, merely existing is seen as a threat.
Many Americans will argue that athletes should just “shut up and play.” These are black men who are being commodified by white team “owners” based on their physical attributes and how well they perform, as if the problems that affect regular people don’t affect them too. Athletes are no different from regular citizens; they just make more money. Regardless of stature and income, their skin in still black or brown.
Michael Bennett claimed that once the police officers realized just who he was, they treated him differently. But ultimately, he was only detained because of his skin color: “Las Vegas police officers singled me out and pointed their guns at me for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bennett says.
This isn’t the first time athletes have used their platform to protest racial injustice in this country. After being the first to integrate American baseball, Jackie Robinson used his platform to speak out against the racial injustice he and his peers faced. Muhammad Ali gave up his titles when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Even more famously, runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black gloved fist in the air during the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony. Their lives were drastically altered as a result of their decision, but they knew they had to use their platforms to incite change. I’m sure they didn’t think that athletes in 2017 would still be fighting the same fight, but here we are.
So, why take a knee?
Taking a knee is one of the most peaceful forms of protest; it evokes a strong and powerful image that goes back to the 1960s Civil Rights era. There is a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. taking a knee with his fellow protesters before the march on Selma. Doing it during the national anthem is the most poignant time because the song is supposed to represent America. And it does. It represents an America that has never valued the lives of its black citizens. And that needs to change.
These athletes have one of the biggest international platforms (the Sunday game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens was played in England at Wembley Stadium). They are beginning to realize that they can make a real impact with their actions on the field where people can see them.
Their right to protest however they see fit is a First Amendment Right. It is no different than angry citizens throwing barrels of tea into the Boston Harbor. But because the “patriots” in 1776 were white, it is acceptable. I’m calling bullshit.
Kneeling during the national anthem isn’t spitting in the face of American patriotism, it is a shining example of everything that America was built upon. Patriotism is only allowed when it serves the white American agenda, and we are saying no more. That is why athletes should continue to take a knee, and that is why more people will continue to join them. In resistance to Trump and in resistance to the white supremacist system he seeks to uphold.
You don’t have to kneel, but you should support — and understand — the people who do.