But Americans don’t bat an eye, or if they do, they learn to keep quiet about it. That is, until Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, took a seat during the anthem before a preseason scrimmage with the Green Bay Packers. After the game, Kaepernick explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
The NFL is 68% Black, and players have previously stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2014, several players on the Rams (then in St. Louis, near Ferguson, MO) came on the field with their arms raised in the “hands up don’t shoot” signal. Some players have worn “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts and taken up the cause, even as others such as the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman have come out saying that “All Lives Matter.”
Black Lives Matter protests have flared periodically after new police murders, starting with Mike Brown’s in Ferguson in 2014. They have shined a fresh light on the impunity that most cities deal with police killings, and the egregious nature of many such killings – people in cars with children like Philando Castile, people pinned on their backs like Alton Sterling, people locked into police vans and given a “rough ride” like Freddie Gray – highlight the racism that still festers in American society.
Kaepernick, whose girlfriend is a Muslim, has been subjected to anti-Muslim attacks as his protests have gone on. He has stood up and decried the Islamophobia of his detractors: “But I think that rumor] comes along with people’s fear of this protest, as well as Islamophobia in this country. People are terrified of them to the point where [Trump wants to ban all Muslims from coming here, which is ridiculous.”
Seahawks player Jeremy Lane joined Kaepernick in his protest during Seattle’s final scrimmage, and there have been rumblings that the entire Seahawks team may kneel. Kaepernick’s teammate Eric Reid also joined him before the 49ers’ last preseason game. During the season opener, Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos knelt during the anthem and said afterward:
“I’m not against the police. I’m not against the military. I’m not against America. I’m against social injustice. This movement is something special. People are going to bash me on social media but at the end of the day I’m going to go home and sleep peacefully knowing what I did was right. I will not lose any sleep.”
Even other sports have seen anthem protests, such as US women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who knelt in solidarity.
As players have taken knees, controversy has swirled. Widespread denunciations of Kaepernick as disrespectful to the nation and the military, and in the words of at least one anonymous NFL executive, a traitor – implying that Kaepernick is unpatriotic for his protest.
But support has been building slowly and quietly. Kaepernick’s jersey has become the NFL’s best seller, and military veterans on Twitter, many of them people of color, have used the hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick to counter the bitter vitriol unleashed from reactionary and nationalist corners of the Internet. Most importantly he has been supported by many players, and the San Francisco 49ers organization has found itself needing to make charitable donations to foundations as a recognition of the social injustices that their player is so visibly protesting.
The NFL makes $10 billion per year in television, sponsorship, merchandise and other revenues. Each team has an estimated worth of over a billion dollars, and not a single one of the owners is Black. Yet they live on the blood, sweat and tears of mostly Black athletes. The average player in the NFL has a career less than four years long, in an incredibly competitive field, and most never make more than the rookie wage scale. A select few superstars make hundreds of millions of dollars, but 78% of players drafted declare bankruptcy within 12 years.
Play in the NFL is extremely demanding, requiring intensive conditioning, study, and practice to get on the field on a Sunday. Players grind their bodies down, and when their athleticism begins to fade or injuries disable them, find themselves cast out from the game. Players joke that NFL stands for “Not For Long.” The league has spent more than a decade fighting the growing realization that many players suffer from chronic traumatic encephelopathy (CTE), brought about by repeated jarring collisions and exposure to head trauma such as concussions, that causes a myriad of health problems down the road.
These athletes sacrifice everything they have for a game that they love, many dreaming of wealth and stability for families that have known harsh poverty. Yet they feel the wrath of their so-called fans when they dare to express support for causes such as Black Lives Matter. When Brandon Marshall went into the locker room to be tested for a concussion on the opening night, his detractors on Twitter applauded the idea that he may have been injured. There is a very real sense of white entitlement in this reaction, that players may play their game but must not dare to have opinions. Many whites who called for peaceful protests when Black Lives Matters demonstrations became violent are now enraged by a harmless, silent act.
The courage of these athletes to speak their minds deserves to be commended. Kaepernick could have been cut, and in fact many in the football media expected him to be cut, as he has failed to win the starting quarterback job on the field. Instead, he chose to do what his conscience told him was right with the national media platform still available to him. As more players join him, the protests will push forward the necessary message – that America can’t watch a game full of Black athletes and then turn a blind eye when Black people are routinely cut down by police violence.
The NFL is by far the most popular form of entertainment in the United States, and Black players have done the lion’s share of the work behind its success. Until Colin Kaepernick made the decision to sit down for the anthem, its patriotic pomp was unquestioned, an unreflective bit of boredom before the game got underway. Now it is electric, as cameras watch the sidelines for players kneeling, and one player can totally take over the conversation simply by choosing to take a knee. Pomp replaced by protest – truly a welcome sight.