Making sense of NFL players’ ‘Take a Knee’ protests

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick takes a knee alongside safety Eric Reid during the national anthem last season. New protests took place this season in Week 3. / Courtesy of Vimeo

It was only 13 months ago when Colin Kaeper- nick decided to take a knee. It started out as a simple, passive and unnoticed gesture, with the 49ers quarterback choosing to sit by the Gatorade coolers during the national anthem of a meaningless preseason game. What Kaepernick’s protest would become in the weeks to follow, however, is one of the most polarizing and scrutinized gestures in American media history. For weeks, public figures, activists, analysts, all the way down to the typical football fan, debated Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the anthem, in what he declared a statement against police brutality.

For weeks, public figures, activists, analysts, all the way down to the typical football fan, debated Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the anthem, in what he declared a statement against police brutality.

As news cycles turn over with lighting-quick speed now more than ever, Kaepernick’s protest had seemingly been forgotten in the central public forum, with its novelty finally running its course. The NFL, drawing pressure from its conservative image and fan base, had effectively blacklisted Kaepernick out of his job. The league seemed to have moved on and maneuvered out of yet another public relations crisis.

However, the past two weeks of football have jolted new life into Kaepernick’s protest.

There’s a lot of confusion around the league-wide “Take a Knee” protest that has taken place. Why now? What exactly are the players protesting? Simply put, there is no easy answer, and there is a lot to unpack here.

The protest seemed to have been spurred by comments made by President Donald Trump in one of his many trademarked, loud and provocative campaign rallies on Sept. 22 in Alabama. In his speech, Trump urged league owners to fire players that kneeled for the national anthem.

Trump 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!’”

The following day Trump doubled down on his comments and tweeted, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the Nation Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do.”

Further outrage was expressed over comments Trump made about Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry and his decision to boycott the traditional NBA champion White House visit. Trump tweeted, “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!”

Empowered and frustrated by Trump’s comments, many players were quick to fire back on Twitter, with NBA star LeBron James going as far as calling Trump a “bum.”

The biggest demonstration, however, came on the field for football Sunday. Going far beyond the scope and scale of Kaepernick’s protest, players from across the league broke out in protest with displays of team unity during the national anthem.

Players from the Raiders, Bills, Broncos, Giants, Lions, Patriots, Saints and Falcons did not choose to stand for the anthem. The Dolphins, Buccaneers, Vikings, Eagles, Bears, Colts, Jets, Chargers, Packers and Redskins stood with arms locked, while some players chose to kneel as well. Overall, the Associated Press estimated that 204 players elected to kneel or sit during the anthem.

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers decided not to come out of their locker room for the anthem prior to their game against the Chicago Bears. The Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans followed suit in their afternoon game (The New York Times, “After Trump Blasts N.F.L., Players Kneel and Lock Arms in Solidarity,” 09.42.2017). Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who served three tours of duty in the U.S. military, was the sole player to come out of the locker room to stand and pledge, for which he later said he felt “embarrassed” in a press conference after the game.

Many military veterans like Villanueva have weighed in on the debate. Following the protests Sunday, four million social media posts have included #TakeAKnee (Adweek, “This Social Analytics Firm Says the 4 Million #TakeAKnee Tweets Are Just the Beginning,” 09.25.2017). An image of a 97-year-old WWII vet in Missouri taking a knee went viral.

However, there has also been a lot of backlash to the player’s decision to kneel. Many have flocked to social media to utilize the image of Pat Tillman as a reason for NFL players to stand. Tillman was an NFL player for the Arizona Cardinals who enlisted in the military following the Sept. 11 attacks. Tillman died in the line of duty.

In response, Tillman’s widow Marie Tillman asked that his service not be politicized. “Pat’s ser- vice, along with that of every man and woman’s service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that,” Tillman said in a statement released to CNN on Sept. 26.

Probably the most surprising reaction to Trump’s comments have come from NFL owners. In this year’s annual London, England, game, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Raiders locked arms on their respective sidelines, while some players chose to kneel as well. In a pointed refute of Trump’s call to fire players, Jags owner Shahid Khan locked arms with tight end Marcedes Lewis and linebacker Telvin Smith in a show of solidarity. Khan is a Republican who had made significant contributions to the Trump campaign during the election season (USA Today, “Jaguars owner Shahid Khan joins in on NFL’s national an- them protests,” 09.24.2017).

In this year’s annual London, England, game, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Raiders locked arms on their respective sidelines, while some players chose to kneel as well. In a pointed refute of Trump’s call to fire players, Jags owner Shahid Khan locked arms with tight end Marcedes Lewis and linebacker Telvin Smith in a show of solidarity. Khan is a Republican who had made significant contributions to the Trump campaign during the election season (USA Today, “Jaguars owner Shahid Khan joins in on NFL’s national anthem protests,” 09.24.2017).

Many other owners were not hesitant to fire back. Owners Stephen Ross (Dolphins), Martha Ford (Lions), Jeffrey Lurie (Eagles), Christopher Johnson (Jets) and Dean Spanos (Chargers) also joined their respective teams during the anthem. Owner of “America’s Team,” Jerry Jones, knelt alongside his Dallas Cowboys during the national anthem (NPR, “How Every NFL Team Responded To Trump’s National Anthem Protest Comments,” 09.25.2017).

New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft, a long-time friend of President Trump, released his own statement.

“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday. I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities,” Kraft said on the Patriot’s website. “Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger.”

16 of Kraft’s Patriots took a knee during their game this Sunday, while quarterback Tom Brady, who has frequently dodged questions about his association with President Trump, locked arms with his teammates (The New York Times).

“Yeah, I certainly disagree with what Trump said. I thought it was just divisive,” Brady said in a radio interview on “Kirk and Callahan.” “Like I said, I just want to support my teammates. I am never one to say, ‘Oh, that is wrong. That is right.’ I do believe in what I believe in. I believe in bringing people together and respect and love and trust.”

Many analysts had commented that with all the focus on Trump, Kaepernick’s original message on police brutality has been lost in translation.

Kaepernick remained mostly quiet throughout the protests, instead choosing to retweet images of players that wore “#IMWITHKap” shirts on Sunday, a subtle reminder of what his protests were supposed to be about.

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, who was the first player to kneel alongside Kaepernick last season, offered his thoughts in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, Sept. 25.

“I am nevertheless encouraged to see my colleagues and other public figures respond to the president’s remarks with solidarity with us,” Reid wrote. “It is paramount that we take control of the story behind our movement, which is that we seek equality for all Americans, no matter their race or gender.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *