Donald Trump ensnared the entire NFL in race and politics when he made inflammatory remarks during a political rally in Alabama on Friday. Trump delivered a lengthy speech (rambling or rousing?) which included remarks directed at Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest. We examine whether those kneeling during the anthem are really disparaging the values of those who served in the military, and vice-versa. Is this really a divisive issue or is there more common ground than is being reported?
A quick catch-up on what happened: Kaepernick, who is no longer in the NFL, protested last season by taking a knee during the national anthem. He continued to kneel throughout the season. Last summer, 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…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.”
There was no rationale for Trump choosing to talk about the NFL during the rally. He said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag; he’s fired.’ And that owner… they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
On Sunday, the league responded and then players across the NFL rebuked Trump’s remarks.
The players responded by either kneeling, linking arms, or remaining off the field for the national anthem. The Dallas Cowboys kneeled in unison on Monday night. This is a situation where players were thrust into the debate. How they behaved on Sunday was a closely watched response to Trump.
ESPN ran a photo piece on how various teams around the league chose to act.
Why is this debate important?
Patriotism is a very electric issue. Race is an electric issue. Politics is an electric issue. Trump too. All of these came together over the weekend and infiltrated the world of sports – an industry that offers escapism from the hot button issues of race and politics.
But when Trump offered his opinion, he escalated Colin Kaepernick’s action. NFL players are a close-knit fraternity and when one of them is called a “son of a bitch” by the President, it forces all to respond.
These issues are abstract and at the core of each person’s existence. Trump politicized the apolitical world of sports. By doing so, whole swaths of the population will be engaged in debating and articulating where they stand. The drawback to this is many stances are already being determined by media narratives – so it is not a discussion where everybody is coming in with an open mind.
Let’s break down the two “sides” the media has selected to represent when pushing this. Keep in mind, neither side is monolithic in their reasoning. Each person has their own nuance when it comes to this debate.
What is the rationale for kneeling for the anthem?
Colin Kaepernick began kneeling because police officers were killing unarmed black men and facing no conseqeunces. A New York Times story today has a rundown of some of the shootings and the repercussions the officer faced (or frequently did not).
The act of kneeling has taken on larger import since Kaepernick began. Though the act was specific to police brutality last year, it has since grown to underscore the racial inequality in America. Police killings of unarmed people are one of the clearest and most violent examples of the inequality. However, as more people began to take part in the protest or voice support for Kaepernick, the issue enlarged because each person brings their own experiences and reasons.
See NFL player, Michael Thomas answering questions about why he supports highlighting the racial injustice that has been prevalent in American society:
See how those protesting are protesting because they believe the United States is not living up to its ideals of equality. There are horrifying videos that demonstrate over and over again that people are being killed without cause. The killings by police are further evidence that black America lives under a different set of laws and opportunities than the rest of America.
What is the rationale for condemning the national anthem protests?
This side of the argument sees an NFL player, a person of prestige, disrespecting the American flag and all it stands for. In this vein, protesting against the flag is protesting every virtue we claim to espouse: freedom, democracy, patriotism and on.
Fox News best encapsulates the viewpoint of the anti-protesters. While most media organizations wrapped up the weekend’s events as a rebuke of Trump’s divisive rhetoric, Fox avoided that aspect altogether. The main story today was about NFL player, Alejandro Villanueva, standing in the tunnel to honor the anthem as the rest of his team remained in the tunnel. Villanueva is a veteran who served in Afghanistan.
Fox’s main story was about Villanueva’s jersey sales reaching number one in the NFL store. The story features a tweet from another serviceman who describes Villanueva as a “hero” and praises his “courage.” The effect of this, is that Fox has cast those who stand for the flag as the heroes in this and implicitly labels those who do not stand as the villains. Fox seems to have editorial guidelines requiring that all stories have a clear cut “good guy” and a clear “bad guy.”
Fox does not address police killings or nuanced issues like race and inequality. Their supplemental articles are: an opinion piece on the justification of firing one’s employees for not standing during the anthem, a summary of the White House press conference defending Trump’s statement, and a story of a Buffalo Bills employee who quit as a response to the protesters.
The Fox story contains a quote from Villanueva, given last year, on how he views the debate:
“I don’t know if the most effective way is to sit down during the national anthem with a country that’s providing you freedom, providing you $16 million a year…when there are black minorities that are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for less than $20,000 a year,” Villanueva told ESPN in 2016.
He added: “I will be the first one to hold hands with Colin Kaepernick and do something about the way minorities are being treated in the United States, the injustice that is happening with police brutality, the justice system, inequalities in pay. You can’t do it by looking away from the people that are trying to protect our freedom and our country.”
Fox does not mention Villanueva’s comments today in which he felt the image misrepresented his support of his team. He said, “When everybody sees the image of me by myself, everybody thinks the team, the Steelers, are not behind me, and that’s absolutely wrong… I made Coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only. I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only.” The ESPN story on his presser has a number of quotes that provide context to Villanueva’s stance.
Do these viewpoints really contradict each other?
Only if you believe the other side’s action is a direct response and rejection of your beliefs.
A generalized summary:
1.) Protesters believe there are unjust killings and that unjustness has manifested in many ways. They believe it is detrimental to what the U.S. claims to be. They may have friends or family members who have been treated maliciously by officers of the law, or worse, they may have been impacted by violent killings. They do not see these issues being dealt with even though the issues have been going on for years. Not only are the issues not being dealt with, they are not even being talked about.
But taking a knee has raised awareness. And awareness leads to action.
2.) The counter-protesters believe kneeling is a sign of disrespect to the flag and the country that has provided people with every opportunity they have. They may have friends or family members who have died defending the country. To disrespect the country is to disrespect the sacrifice and diminish the grievances of servicemen everywhere.
See how these do not contradict each other? Trump sows discord and some media sources enflame it. But few protesters would say that they are acting to disrespect the military. Few anti-protesters would say they believe police killing unarmed people is okay. You can respect the United States and point out that there is a major issue needing to be addressed. You can also stand for the national anthem and believe that there is racial inequality that should be fixed.
To pick one side or the other in this debate is to buy into the division.
What can you do?
Find ways to bring people together. State your beliefs and weigh carefully whether you are actually disagreeing with another’s viewpoint, or whether there is conflict simply because you are not completely synced up in your dialogue.
Here are two athletes explaining how they feel about this issue.
Lebron James, the best athlete in the world and social activist, advocating for unity:
And here is Villanueva’s response during today’s press conference [from ESPN]:
“I’ve learned that I don’t know what it’s like to be from Dade County, I don’t know what it’s like to be from Oakland. I can’t tell you I know what my teammates have gone through, so I’m not going to pretend like I have the righteous sort of voice to tell you that you should stand up for the national anthem. It’s protected by our constitution and our country. It’s the freedom of speech. People felt, based on the comments the president made, they had to go out and protect and support Colin Kaepernick, and that’s completely in their right. But it was not something we were trying to do with the Steelers. We were trying to be unified.”