By: Molly Meisels  | 

When Football Gets Political

I don’t know much about football. If you asked me to discuss the differences between Tom Brady and Eli Manning, I would struggle to find the right answer (unless, of course, one was clutching a deflated football.) I’ve never paid much attention to this aspect of an all-American world, full of team pride and fantasy football leagues. But, when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem back in August of 2016, football had my full attention.

Here was a famed athlete, kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality. He had everything to lose when he made that move, and he must’ve known it. One cannot comment on race in this country without a considerable amount of backlash. When asked for comment, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” That statement was bold, and it resonated. Across the country, people were divided on Kaepernick’s peaceful protest. Some believed that this protest was the embodiment of our democracy while others thought it was dishonorable. But Kaepernick is just one man in a sea of thousands. How much of an impact could he really have?

Fast forward to the present day. Kaepernick can’t get signed to a team. He is too controversial. He stands for something. No owner would risk hiring a player who has a political agenda and upsets much of their fanbase. Many NFL owners want nothing more than pawns on the field: obedient, non-controversial bodies, who will play, entertain the public, and leave. Kaepernick, by taking the knee, proved that he is interested in being more than a body. He wished to use the platform he had been granted to make a statement about America’s racial oppression. With today’s rising political tension, no one will give him that platform any longer, as they are afraid of the repercussions from the conservative American football fans. The NFL is fine with signing domestic and sexual abusers to their teams since assault on women won’t keep the football fan base away. Apparently, though, what will keep them away is a man standing up for his value system without hurting anyone in the process. I guess this is indicative of the priorities of the NFL and America at large.

As Kaepernick’s ‘knee’ was becoming increasingly politicized, it was only a matter of time before President Trump chimed in on the issue. President Trump criticized Kaepernick and others like him at a speech in Alabama, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b***h off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” He then went on to complain about the rule changes in the NFL, making the games less violent, and attributed this to the dip in football game ratings.

Trump didn’t end his attacks in Alabama. He went on a Twitter tirade (and continues to go on one) demanding that fans boycott the NFL, that the NFL set rules prohibiting ‘taking the knee’, and promising that this issue has nothing to do with race. But it does. It has everything to do with race. The protest started due to race, and Trump is berating the protesters due to race.

After the comments made by Trump, NFL players across the country began ‘taking the knee’ during the national anthem. Entire teams, owners, and coaches started kneeling together and locking arms in solidarity. Players who were afraid to join Kaepernick’s demonstration before jumped at the chance to do so now. When the President attacks the right to a peaceful protest, the game changes. It doesn’t matter if all those kneeling agree with the premise of the original protest. What they do agree on is that all Americans, whoever they may be, have the right to protest our government and our system.

As a broader issue, it seems like many Americans don’t want black Americans to protest oppression at all. Many are infuriated when Black Lives Matter takes a stand in the streets to dispute police brutality, and see the group as a band of recluses searching for trouble. They say that if you want to protest racial oppression and unfair police brutality, do it peacefully. If you have a peaceful protest, you’ll have the attention and full support of America. But when an athlete like Colin Kaepernick ‘takes the knee’ during the national anthem, our country is up in arms. This isn’t the peaceful protest they had in mind. How dare Kaepernick and the other athletes disrespect the flag our veterans fought to protect?

So where should black Americans protest? If they can’t make a commotion and they can’t kneel, what would those against Kaepernick’s protest like them to do? The answer is nothing. Many Americans don’t want black activists to protest the flag or the country at all. They see this country as a beacon of freedom and hope that has protected and served all who dwell here for centuries, and they are offended that anyone would believe otherwise. However, for many, this is not the case. African-Americans have fought for centuries to obtain equal rights in this nation. They have fought for economic and cultural equality, and the right to be treated humanely by our police forces.

It isn’t up to white Americans to say that they’re in the wrong, and that America has given them all the opportunity in the world, because we don’t know what another’s persecution looks like. If they are pleading with us, we need to listen. But many refuse to. Many refuse to listen when protesters make a racket, and many berate the protesters who take a stand silently and peacefully. It is a reenactment of the Civil Rights Era. Malcolm X was viewed as a danger and a threat to the equality of black individuals. Work within the system, they said. So, that’s precisely what Martin Luther King Jr. did. He worked in the system and protested peacefully, yet was still met with the same backlash. The problem isn’t the method of protest, the problem is with us.  

We’ve shoved African-American protesters out of every arena. We’ve refused to listen to their cries for help and their rallying for change. So, for them, the only means of protest left was kneeling during the national anthem at a football game. Fans were livid, how dare these athletes politicize football? Get your issues and your values out of sports. Find another space to hold a demonstration. But there isn’t any. This is it. Football isn’t a safe space anymore, lacking all politics and social justice, solely because many Americans don’t have the tolerance to listen to the pleas of the persecuted.

The players on the field, protesting, have been entertaining Americans for decades. They work for years, perfecting their skills so that we can have those Sundays, with a game and beer, that we love so much. It’s our job to listen. It’s our job to realize that the national anthem and the American flag are symbols, representing something infinitely larger than themselves. They are symbols of hope and democracy, not only to white Americans who are content in this country, but to the black Americans who feel systematically oppressed. They have every right to protest the anthem, because this democracy has given them that right. The women and men who fought for this country have granted them that freedom. When we were gifted “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” it wasn’t accompanied by a disclaimer saying: unless it’s Sunday football, in that case just shut up and play. Sports will remain political as long as it is a viable platform for players to voice vital opinions. It is their right, and not Trump, nor anyone else can take that right away from them.