The Media’s Response to the NFL Protests

Steven Jernigan

During the 2016 NFL pre-season, then 28-year-old quarterback for the San Francisco 49er’s, Colin Kaepernick, made headlines after an image of him tweeted by’s Jennifer Lee Chan showed the quarterback sitting on the sideline during the National Anthem. At the final pre-season game for the 49er’s on September 1, 2016, Bleacher Report journalist Adam Wells reports that Kaepernick was greeted by fans with audible boos. Keapernick and 49er’s safety Eric Reid got off the bench and this time decided to kneel during the national anthem instead of sit. The decision to move from a sitting position on the bench to a kneeling position on the sideline was reportedly Kaepernick’s decision in order to “be more respectful” (Well). At that same game, it was also reported that Kaepernick stood during the playing of “God Bless America” and applauded the signing of the national anthem by Petty Officer First Class Steven Powell. The game had taken place during San Francisco’s Military Appreciation Night.

After the initial photo was tweeted on August 27th by Chan, Kaepernick spoke to the media on 28th of August about his reasoning behind the decision to sit during the national anthem. When asked about his reasoning behind the protest Kaepernick responded with the following quote:

“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.”

This stance of protesting the injustice within the criminal justice system has been his position from the initial sitting on the bench to him kneeling on the sideline during the September 1 game. Kaepernick strengthened his positioned on September 2 by telling media outlets that he had discussed the idea of taking a knee during the national anthem with a former military veteran: “how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from the pride in our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are” (Well). During the same interview, Kaepernick pledged to donate one million dollars to areas in need in order to fight racism and provide underprivileged areas with the help they needed to succeed.

Fast forward to 2017 when President Trump held a rally in Huntsville, Alabama where he called out Kaepernick, Reid, and other NFL athletes: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.’” In response, more than 130 NFL players “sat, knelt, or raised their fist in defiance” during the national anthem on September 24, 2017. Prior to the President’s comments, four players had knelt and two had raised their firsts. The protest reached across the Atlantic to Wembley Stadium in the United Kingdom. NFL teams the Ravens and the Jaguars were playing overseas and two players knelt during the playing of the national anthem. One player was quoted as saying “there ain’t no dividing us…I guess we’re son-of-a-bitches” (Stapleton). The report by the Associated Press goes on to say that certain players wore #IMWITHKAP shirts as an act of solidarity. Other sports figures such as NBA stars Lebron James and Steph Curry joined in the criticism of the President. While players were still on board with Kaepernick’s original intent for the protest, it appears that President Trump’s attempt to divide the league on this issue was the catalyst for the appearance of kneeling in the 2017 season. Even moreso, it was President Trump’s insinuation that players like Kaepernick were not protesting injustice, but rather disrespecting the flag and the country. This assumption led to the media’s coverage changing from police brutality and inequality to the appropriateness of kneeling during the anthem.

On Fox’s news program “Hannity” host Sean Hannity and guest Bill O’Reilly discussed the issue. Both men stated that the protests are acts of defiance against Trump and his presidency and also grossly inappropriate given the time in which they take place. O’Reilly goes so far as to say that the players must not know what they are doing or the history of the flag to be disrespecting it so. In reference to the demonstration at Wembley, O’Reilly says that there are soldiers 3,000 miles away who want to watch the game and to think about how offended they would be seeing players kneel must make them feel. Fox, the President, and the conservative party took the protest during the anthem as a sign of disrespect. O’Reilly does however say that the players are protesting issues as opposed to other pundits like Hannity who would go on to claim the players are protesting the anthem. “It’s not true,” stated O’Reilly in response to the ideas of oppression and brutality Kaepernick was originally kneeling for. The duo was able to point a key transition in the protests, however. President Trump co-opted the narrative through the use of tweets by positioning all demonstrations after Kaepernick as protests against the President instead of Kaepernick’s initial grievances. The players appeared to be kneeling in solidarity with their teammates instead of solely protesting police brutality.

Bill O’Reilly on Anthem Protests

On other end of the political spectrum, networks such as CNN had heated debates on the topic of whether or not these players are protesting the flag or the injustice Kaepernick spoke about, and if the national anthem was the appropriate time during which to air such grievances. In an opinion piece for the network, former NFL player Marvin Washington discussed his own experiences as living as a black man in the United States. Washington describes his interactions with the police, the fear of having one of his children end up as hashtag on twitter due to a police incident, and the struggles that he sees within the African- American community. He states definitively that these protests are not about kneeling, but about these struggles and the issues surrounding black people in the country.

From the start, Kaepernick made clear what his intentions were. The initial demonstration was initiated with the intention of prompting a discussion on interactions between police and the communities of color, oppression in black community, and the general systemic oppression that Kaepernick was observing. The narrative of the protests was shifted, however, as pundits and eventual Presidents interpreted the protests as disrespectful to the flag. They were deliberate attempts to disrespect the country. This co-opting of the narrative prompted heated conversations about the appropriateness of these protests rather than focusing on Kaepernick’s initial message. The rhetoric became one of people’s right to protests and the appropriate of protests instead of the struggles communities of color face.