Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco safety Eric Reid came under fire from right-wing citizens and news outlets alike over their Sept. 1, 2016, decision to take a knee during the national anthem. Though they were alone in their action for a while, the act of peaceful protest soon spread around the sports world as players took a knee to protest racial injustices in the United States. However, with this came even more backlash. The backlash featured sporting elites such as Houston Texans owner Robert C. McNair, who warned that the players should follow his orders because, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison” (which actually only led to a full-team kneel during the anthem), and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who stated that players who decided to not stand during the anthem would be met with harsh discipline. Silver also stated that individual teams have no power to decide whether or not players could take a knee during the anthem.
The issue is clearly contentious and further evidence of a growing sociopolitical divide in the United States. It goes past commissioners and franchise owners and into our daily lives. For example, a Brandeis Hoot opinion piece titled “Politicization of sports has brought this country to a new low” was published this past October. The article argued that sports in America function as a form of escapism, and that athletes kneeling during the anthem robbed Americans of an important escape from political issues. I thought that this article misunderstood the issue of kneeling as protest, and argued a view that I found regressive. The issue here is that many people, especially those who are directly affected by the racial violence that athletes are protesting, do not have the privilege to simply ignore what’s going on around them.
This becomes an even more contentious and complicated issue when one considers that some people have more socioeconomic and sociopolitical privilege, which means that they can use their status to enact meaningful change through these protests. Instead, many relatively privileged people simply choose to ignore the peaceful protests, or more often than not dismiss them as unreasonable and disrespectful. Their reasoning is that both sides are complicit in perpetuating antagonisms, and that kneeling athletes catalyze these antagonisms. This view is illogical, especially because the act of taking a knee is a peaceful protest that in no way disrespects veterans or the flag. Frankly, all citizens should consider taking a knee during the national anthem.
Kneeling during the national anthem doesn’t represent disrespect for veterans. Besides the fact that the tune of the anthem is a direct transposition of the British song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the Star-Spangled Banner is a literal reference to flying the flag of the United States following the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. While one could argue that this is a perfect metaphor for the resolve of the United States and its veterans, wouldn’t a better metaphor for patriotic resolve be the continued protesting of racial injustices in the face of harsh adversity? Patriotic resolve isn’t a blind acceptance of antiquated ideals and refusal to speak out against wrongs. Patriotic resolve is recognizing that society has wrongs that shouldn’t be accepted but rather confronted and overcome. This isn’t even taking into account the fact that NFL teams coming out to the field and standings for the national anthem is a new practice. Teams didn’t start standing for the anthem until 2009. The practice didn’t become widespread until 2012, when the United States Department of Defense began their “Paid Patriotism” procedure by paying NFL teams to come out and stand for the anthem.
Many say that players shouldn’t engage in peaceful protest because, to many, football is an escape, and this is hindering on those people’s rights to enjoy a pastime. However, it’s not unreasonable to say that certain issues have priority over sports. Yes, people have the right to enjoy their games and watch the Browns go 0-16, but the act of peacefully protesting racial injustices doesn’t in any way compromise their ability to watch a game of football given that the game and the anthem don’t overlap at all. I ask that Brandeis students in positions of power use their relative privilege to stand up against racial injustices by refusing to stand. During public national anthems, choosing to kneel makes a powerful and peaceful statement. More attention needs to be drawn to issues of racial violence, and these brave players need to be shown support in the most effective and peaceful way possible: taking a knee during the anthem.