When it is time for the national anthem at a football game, the announcer asks everyone to rise if they are able. Physically, National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick is more than capable of standing. On August 14, 2016, Kaepernick decided he was mentally unable to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a preseason game in San Francisco. Kaepernick’s decision to sit, and later on take a knee for the anthem was out of protest of racial injustice in the United States of America. Kaepernick was not the first black athlete to initiate a race-based protest. However, since the protests began and have grown, the conversation has shifted and had focuses on military, patriotism, privilege in the NFL, and Donald Trump.
This paper will focus on the the point of the protests, and why they are performed during the national anthem. It will explore how mass media have framed the protests, and how that affects media consumer’s responses to them. Next, it will engage the arguments on both sides, are these protests are right and have a positive outcome? Or are they disrespectful and detrimental to the league and the nation? Finally, the paper will come to a conclusion on how the players should act in order to maintain their image, keep their jobs, and create social change in their country. Taking a knee during the national anthem as a peaceful protest of racial injustice is the right decision, as long as those who do so express what their act represents, and follow it by taking action.
Kaepernick is not the first black athlete to use his platform to protest. Pena (2017) cites numerous protests in college and professional sports, namely Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who placed first and third in the 200-metre sprint at the 1968 Olympics. During the national anthem, they raised black-gloved fists in support of the Black Power movement. They received a great deal of criticism. They were suspended from the United States Olympic team, and never competed in the Olympics again (p. 29).
A more recent example by Pena came in 1996, when National Basketball Association player Mahmoud Abdul-Raul sat for the anthem. Shortly after, he received less playing time than normal, was traded, and no longer had a job or any offers from NBA teams within two years. The decision, however brave and admirable it may have been, cost him a lot of money and fame (p. 30).
While it may seem as though black athletes are somewhat removed from racial injustice, they face oppression for different reasons. According to Davis (1999), negative feelings toward people of other races are heightened when they achieve higher social status. Not only do they oppose their culture, they despise those who live better than they do in their own world (p.884).
In addition, Davis notes a 1997 study on the NFL. “When the league filled a record 11 head-coaching vacancies . . . , only one of the 95 African-American assistant coaches was included in the interview process.” This discrepancy expands to management positions, where those held by blacks are few and far between (p. 885-6). With few advocates in the organization, there is pressure on players to conform to certain rules, play a certain game, if they wish to stick around.
The first question to ask on the case of Kaepernick and the NFL is, what exactly are they protesting? From the beginning of the protests, Kaepernick has made his reason very clear. Pena quotes Kaepernick:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder… This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” (p. 40).
This seems simple. Colin Kaepernick took a knee to bring more attention to instances of police officers shooting innocent african american people in the United States. Furthermore, he wanted to start a conversation about inequality, he wanted to be a voice for those who do not have one. He happened to pick a time and place that generates a lot of different conversations, however.
Of all the ways Kaepernick and other NFL players could protest, why during “The Star-Spangled Banner?” Simply put, the anthem is a moment that does not directly impact the game, yet still has the attention of thousands in the stadium, and millions watching on national television. Furthermore, the anthem itself is full of symbolism. This is where the conversation becomes nuanced, convoluted, and derailed.
Pena notes that the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” celebrates racism and slavery. Further conversations between Kaepernick and the media make it clear that Kaepernick chose the anthem because of this symbolism. He feels that the anthem and the United States flag are symbols of “oppression for people of color and minorities in this country” (p. 36-7).
Kaepernick had a reason to take a metaphorical stand, and a rationale behind the time and place he chose to do so. Unfortunately, interpretations by the media took his actions in a different direction. Lewis and Weaver (2015) explain that with increased access to athlete’s personal lives through social media, people today care more about who athletes are than what they do on the field. Basically, professional sports have more of a focus on culture more than ever before (p. 232-3). Kaepernick’s actions and perceived culture were up for interpretation of everyone involved. Considering it is an industry dominated by caucasian males, the result was that Kaepernick lost his job. Even though he has better career statistics than a handful of quarterbacks in the NFL today, owners are not inclined to take a chance on him based on the cultural dynamics he may bring to their team.
So, what happened exactly? Pena explains, “the most common frame used across the board was the debate frame, which set up the Kaepernick protest as an argument worthy of discussion, which was incidentally a goal of Kaepernick’s anyway.” (p. 45). Kaepernick was initially successful in starting conversations. However, Pena adds, “the debate focused on his methods and his perceived patriotism, among a slew of other aspects such as his credibility, his right to protest, and the implications on his NFL future.” (p. 45). The conversation was always more about Kaepernick and his career than about racial injustice as he intended.
Coombs et al (2017) expand on Pena’s idea, saying “the emphasis on Kaepernick and his kneeling in coverage framed it in ways that undermined his intended message, making it instead about him and his method.” They reference a news article in which Chris Ault, Kaepernick’s college football coach said, “[Kaepernick] using an NFL game as his platform to show the importance of his cause was selfish. Not standing up for an American treasure such as the National Anthem is disrespectful” (p. 56). The use of that quote in an article on Kaepernick says that what he did was about him, not others. The choice of interviewee says that even those close to Kaepernick disagree with his actions. While technically appearing objective, this article is slanted against Kaepernick, evidenced by the very decision to include this quote.
Of course, when an issue of race, patriotism, and sports comes to light, it is presumed that Donald Trump will have something to say. Belson and Draper (2017) reference Trump’s response to the kneeling movement as it has grown in the NFL this season. He took to Twitter and said, “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of out National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!” Trump ignores the message behind the protests, and responds as if the movement is entirely against his country.
On the other side, Steven Sipple (2017) interviewed a former Navy Seal, Damian Jackson, who currently plays college football for the University of Nebraska. Asked about his thoughts on the protests, Jackson was supportive. He said, “I feel like they should be able to voice their opinion. I know a lot of people think it’s bad for the military or they’re disrespecting the military. But they’re taking a knee for their own cause, and they have no disrespect for the military themselves. It’s freedom of speech to me, and I don’t mind anybody doing it, to be honest.”
Jackson’s quote shifts the conversation. The next question is, is this form of protest morally and ethically right? Thiel et al (2016) argue it is. They cite Kaepernick’s reasons for protest and morals behind them, saying, “Didn’t Kaepernick repeatedly state that his protest was a patriotic act? Didn’t he even choose a symbolic gesture that should express both protest against social wrongs and respect for the nation’s constitutional principles at the same time?” (p. 253).
The mention of the constitution is key. For many American citizens, patriotism is founded on the constitution. Thiel et al add, “Why shouldn’t he protest then? Wouldn’t it be unconstitutional and unpatriotic to deny the athlete his (constitutional) right to protest against injustices?” (p. 253). According to the constitution, in fact the first amendment, Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeling for the anthem is completely within their rights, and patriotic in itself. It is those opposed to the protest who are being unpatriotic.
If the players are indeed within their rights, why are many Americans so frustrated? Pena writes, “More often than not, the criticisms are philosophical or political, in how people perceive the protest is often determined by whether they inherently agree with them.” (p. 4). When it comes to opinions, especially those around their country, people do not like being wrong. They see their version of the truth, and all opposed are in the wrong.
Since the NFL is a business, the opinions of the masses matter, and owners must attend to them. Babiak and Wolfe (2009) call this stakeholder management. They note that teams and organizations require cooperation and support of a multitude of external organizations by way of sponsorship (p. 723). Everyone from the owner and head office, to the players and coaches, to the stadium staff play a role in community and sponsor relations. If one player speaks out against the values of these companies, there is a great deal of pressure on the head office to deal with it.
Professional athletes are well aware of this pressure. Bieler (2016) quotes Baltimore Orioles baseball player Adam Jones, “Baseball is a white man’s sport. We already have two strikes against us. So you might as well not kick yourself out of the game. In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us.” Jones may be correct about Major League Baseball, but NFL players are not immune to backlash from general managers across the league. Kaepernick lost his job and has not played professional football since his protests.
Perhaps one critical component to this entire conversation is Kaepernick’s choice to protest during the national anthem – a deep-rooted symbol in American history. Pena references Sports Illustrated’s study on the anthem and its place in professional sports. The anthem was first played at a Chicago Cubs World Series game in 1918, in support of the United States’ involvement in World War I (p. 34). For nearly one hundred years, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been a symbol of patriotism that goes hand-in-hand with sports.
Schatz and Lavine (2007) would argue that this symbolism is a major contributing factor to people’s frustration. They write on the strength of symbols in culture, and that there are no symbols of pride and nationalism in the USA stronger than the flag and anthem. Furthermore, national symbols promote identify by signifying a group. Since the symbols are physical, they are tangible and allow the member to attribute their own meanings to them, along with those inherent in the object. Also, they “distinguish ingroups from outgroups in an effort to enhance self-esteem.” (p. 331-2). So while there are many things that make someone ‘American’ or ‘patriotic,’ honouring the symbols of the national anthem and flag are perceived as closer than exercising first amendment rights. Not standing with one’s hand over their heart for the anthem is seen as unpatriotic and wrong.
Since the flag and anthem are such strong symbols, is it justifiable for NFL players protest specifically while the anthem is playing? Former president of the United States, Barack Obama, believes so. Pena quotes Obama, “I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about.” Obama adds that the timing of the protest has “generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.” (p. 38).
Thiel et al note that “from the perspective of those being criticized, the time and the place of protest is never right… History shows that every improvement of living conditions necessarily requires resistance towards the given because resistance is a prerequisite of change.” (p. 253). In other words, this protest is good, and it is necessary to invoke change in the treatment of African American citizens.
Within this conversation, it is important that the athletes make it clear what the protest is about. Given the power of media framing to change the story, they must be explicit, since the timing of the protest has turned the heads of so many people. Next, they could make great strides if they followed up the display during the anthem with actions. Babiak and Wolfe emphasize the wealth and status of athletes and how it is reflected in their actions. “The great wealth of the owners and athletes may lead people to expect more benevolence from them” (p. 731). Pena looks at the other side, as he says critics of the protests feel that professional athletes are too privileged to truly experience the issues they protest against. If we see NFL players out in communities in the United States, showing their support for African Americans in person, not just in a gesture on the field, there is a greater chance that the movement makes a difference.
In conclusion, Colin Kaepernick protested an age-old issue in the USA by kneeling for the national anthem before a football game. The movement has spread, and many other NFL players are supporting the protest. Their actions do not come without risk, as they have seen Kaepernick and other black athletes lose their jobs as a result of protests. While Kaepernick wanted to create more conversation around racial injustice, the dominating rhetoric has been more focused on the protest itself, how it impacts the careers of football players, and how the president responds to it.
The players have done nothing outside of actions within their constitutional rights in the protest, and have not intended to disrespect their country, or their military. People have reacted negatively as a result of their strong attachment to the anthem, and its association with American patriotism, but many support the act as well, and see the true intentions of the players involved. What the NFL players, especially Colin Kaepernick are doing is right, doing it during the anthem is a great decision, and if they follow their metaphorical gesture with physical actions, their resistance could be a catalyst to significant change in the near future. If nothing else, they can rest well with Kaepernick’s mentality, “I have to stand up for people that are oppressed… if they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” When it is all said and done, what is more patriotic, more honourable than that?
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