Kneeling, But Not Healing: Thoughts on the NFL’s Protests

When Colin Kaepernick first sat during the national anthem a year ago, I was perplexed by the national uproar it caused. Perhaps I don’t share the same patriotic vitriol of many citizens of this country, but I saw the media circus that surrounded the protest as yet another attempt by sports television to turn sports into some sort of soap opera drama — a new topic for Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless to yell about for a few weeks to try to salvage ratings.

But as this simple act of kneeling during a song spiraled into some grand controversy, something else happened. The whole message behind the protest was lost. Kaepernick took his knee as a way to silently speak out about racial inequality and police brutality against people of color in America. But doing so took away his voice. Not even a week later, the conversation circulating ESPN and water coolers around America was not about the injustice shown towards black people in America, but about a lack of respect for the American flag and the soldiers who have fought for the country. Over the past year, Kaepernick’s message was further mangled, as discussion of the protest continued to rage, this time about whether he was a distraction to a locker room. As 32 NFL teams chose to pass on him in free agency, no one was talking about racial inequality. The conversation was about disrespecting the flag, being a distraction, being un-American, not supporting the troops. Anything but the original message Kaepernick intended.

So when NFL players, coaches, and owners joined in unity as they knelt before games last weekend, many saw it as a win for Kaepernick — validation and support for the cause he originally championed. But it wasn’t. His symbol of resistance has been bastardized. This weekend’s protests were not about protecting the lives of black people, they were about PR and brand image. Yes, many of the players knelt with the intent of speaking out against inequality, but look at the inciting incident for these protests. It was Donald Trump. The president called anyone who knelt during the anthem, a “son of a bitch.” Players, who largely have not participated in this protest over the past year, did so now in response to Trump. This was primarily a protest of the president and what he represents — which, yes, includes white supremacy and inequality. But if these players truly wanted to protest in support of the same cause that Colin Kaepernick did a year ago, the kneeling would have begun in the preseason after Charlottesville.

To do so in reaction to Trump’s words was simply them standing up to an autocrat. He made it personal, attacked them specifically, and they had to stand up to him. None of this is to condemn the people who chose to protest on Sunday and Monday, or to assert that they don’t feel passionately about promoting racial equality. But they’ve had a year to show their support of Kaepernick, to show that he is not alone in this fight. Instead, they chose job security. And I can’t blame them. In their situation, I may well have done the same.

For owners — many of whom publicly supported and donated to Trump’s campaign — to kneel beside their players and issue press releases in support of freedom of speech looked great on paper. But that’s exactly what it was. An opportunity to look great. Resisting Trump is good for business these days, and teams and owners capitalized on that PR boost. Their players were going to make a statement regardless, so they chose to not look like the oppressive masters in this scenario. But actions speak louder than knees. What steps are these owners really taking to improve their communities? It’s a sad truth, but change doesn’t come from the oppressed. It comes from the wealthy and those in power. I’ll celebrate owners for taking a stand when they choose to donate money to their communities, when they don’t blackball a player for speaking out. Locking arms and issuing claims of support drafted by a PR team aren’t enough.

Trump’s comments accomplished his goal in some respects. As he has done his entire presidency, he succeeded in dividing America once again. And he succeeded in changing the narrative from improving the lives of the black community to making this an us vs. them, American vs. un-American, supporting the troops vs. protesters. Rhetoric in the media is once again about disrespecting soldiers and veterans — now with the memory of Pat Tillman being weaponized against the protesters — not about protecting the lives of black citizens of the United States.

Kaepernick can no longer be singled out for kneeling, but did he get any of the change he sought to affect? What excuse now do teams have for not signing him, and yet he still remains jobless. This protest, while powerful and most certainly a positive step, is not the same fight he started. Kneeling is no longer about equality, police brutality, or Black Lives Matter. It’s just finally good for business.