This week, hundreds of NFL players knelt during the national anthem in protest of growing racist sentiment in America. The protests were inspired by former 49’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who stirred controversy by kneeling during the national anthem in August 2016, in protest of police brutality against people of color. Other players joined in his protest, including members of U.S. Women’s National Soccer team, and athletes playing at the high school and college levels. Kaepernick’s protest immediately provoked anger from right-wing media, gradually building to a countrywide debate over whether kneeling during the anthem is an acceptable method of protest.
The debate over these protests came to a head last week, when Trump called the kneeling players “sons of bitches” and called for them to be “suspended or fired”. The response from NFL players was massive. Last Sunday, players from teams such as the Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders, and Miami Dolphins took a knee during the anthem. Additionally, the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans stayed in their locker rooms during the anthem. Some Patriots players, including Tom Brady, took a less controversial approach, opting to lock arms rather than kneel. Right-wing social media quickly exploded with condemnations of the protesting NFL players, calling it a manifestation of disrespect for the country’s flag and military. However, these critics have a flawed and problematic view of patriotism, race, and protest.
The common criticism of these protests argues that they disrespect veterans who, these critics point out, risked their lives for the athlete’s right to stand. The criticism is completely incoherent. It states that the military’s purpose is to defend freedom and that this freedom is manifest in the ability to Americans to stand for the national anthem. In fact, American political freedom is manifest in their ability to kneel during the anthem. Tyrannical nations, rather than free ones, force their citizens to show patriotism through symbolic acts like standing during the anthem.
The United States and other nations that pride themselves on political and civil liberties allow citizens to abstain from these symbolic displays. By implying NFL players should be “suspended or fired” for their protest, Trump and his supporters bring the nation further from the ideal of freedom that our nation’s military defends.
Critics of the NFL protesters also believe protesting the president’s actions is in itself unpatriotic. Protesting our country’s political leaders is not only an essential part of our political freedoms, it is a time-honored American tradition.
One of the documents that spurred the American Revolution, “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine, encouraged readers to revolt by openly mocking the British King. Later in American history, political cartoonists mocked President Andrew Jackson by calling him “King Andrew the First” and drawing him wearing a crown and holding a scepter. These criticisms allow Americans to express discontent with the people in power, which keeps our system of democracy healthy.
The tradition of harshly criticizing leaders has persisted to this day through widespread protest of Trump. The kneeling NFL players are not being unpatriotic, but rather continuing a tradition essential to American democracy and freedom.
Animosity towards the protestors is rooted in subtle but sinister racism. Football is a diverse sport. According to Huffington Post, in 2016, 70% of NFL players were African American. Its audience is, however, largely white. In 2013, a Nielsen survey found that 77% of NFL’s T.V. audience is white.
The sports fans angry at the NFL protesters expect to be provided with apolitical entertainment. They dehumanize the athletes, who may come from communities suffering from racial violence and injustice. The kneeling NFL athletes are rejecting the expectation of white viewers, who are used to watching African American athletes interact with the world in an apolitical and sanitized manner.
Kneeling during the national anthem is a valid and patriotic method of protest. Critics of this method of protest have a problematic and dangerous conception of patriotism which ignores American political freedoms and the importance of dissent in democratic societies. Expecting athletes in a sport that is majority African American to ignore the dire issues that many African Americans face is unrealistic and dehumanizing. The NFL players who kneel during the national anthem deserve to be respected as patriots who are fighting against a tide of apathy and racism to bring issues that affect marginalized people into the forefront of American culture.