It started in August 2016, when NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the American anthem. He did it to protest police treatment of African-Americans. It was an act of conscience, an exercise of the democratic right of freedom of expression, and a plea for change.
Kaepernick’s statement against social injustice commanded attention. In the ensuing time between then and now, some players followed suit. But it was hardly a movement, more of a one-off. Things changed when U.S. President Donald Trump, at a campaign style rally in Alabama, appealed to his base, and vulgarly and publicly insulted those players who took a knee.
Trump’s attack on the NFL, which he continues to prod with frequent tweets, occurred shortly after his address at the United Nations where he made inappropriate comments about North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. Trump’s focus on the NFL turned attention away from his imprudent UN remarks, providing a distraction from his lack of statesmanship and an international problem that threatens to spiral out of control.
In a show of unity afterwards, NFL teams took a variety of approaches in response to the president’s comments. Entire teams took a knee, refused to take the field until after the anthem, or stood with arms linked, in a few cases with team owners. Unity, however, seems to be dwindling.
It is quite likely the president’s attitudes have influenced public opinion and are the impetus for some of the intolerance and criticism directed at the NFL.
Many Americans see the posture as an insult to veterans and those who died in combat. In their view, the players’ protests are disrespectful and unpatriotic, and they should not be tolerated; they agree with their commander-in-chief that players who adopt a protest posture should be fired. This is a disturbing irony in a democratic nation that stands, hand over heart, paying tribute to the “land of the free and the home of the brave” before every football game.
Owners and coaches can and do set expectations for their team. They can specify consequences for breaking the team’s code of conduct. They can dictate that players must stand during the anthem. However, if they do so now, they will be putting public opinion over principle.
It will be a form of cowardice; they will be kowtowing to a fabricated controversy breathed into life by the U.S. president. Not only will they be muzzling players, but they will also be giving up their own freedom of thought, speech and expression.
Metaphorically speaking, they will be kneeling to Trump. They will be marching in lock step behind the president, like the army of a dictatorship in a country where there are no freedoms.
Taking a knee, while a sign of protest, might also be thought of as a respectful posture. It suggests subservience to a higher authority to which one might appeal for justice. Thought of in this way, kneeling before the flag becomes an act of trust that one’s plea will bear fruit, that the nation will recognize and address an injustice.
The highest office in the U.S., however, is encouraging a narrow view of patriotism, one that relies on homogeneity of thought and acts of compliance. Although public opinion seems to favour this view, the controversy swirling around player posture in the NFL overlooks an important feature of citizenship in a democracy. Citizenship implies engagement with one’s country and comes with a responsibility to advance the common good. Patriotism and loyalty require citizens to challenge the shortcomings of the country they love, and to be agents of change.
Taking a knee during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner never needed to become a full-blown issue. The president of the United States made it one. And that is what makes the issue so very troubling.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.