The Politicization of Sports

On August 14th, 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem. Since this initial protest, kneeling during the national anthem has become a wide-ranging and relatively common form of protest, gradually expanding within and outside the NFL. As on of the most polarizing characters in sports, Colin Kaepernick has remained unemployed, and yet his prolific influence is undeniable. The recent trend in sports to kneel or sit during the national anthem brings to light many controversial and important issues, but it is diminished in its effectiveness because of a lack of a concrete policy-making element and an unclear aim.

Alongside the fact that the protest is intended to combat racist tendencies in the U.S., there has been no shortage of explanations, and this disunity of purpose undercuts the potential benefit. Kaepernick initially stated that he was protesting “a country that oppresses black people,” but the first NFL player to join in the protests who was not a member of Kaepernick’s football team, Jeremy Lane, simply noted that he “wasn’t trying to say anything. Just standing behind Kaepernick.” Taking Jeremy Lane’s quote as the reason for protest underscores another issue. This was perhaps an isolated justification, but a plethora of players have cited “supporting Kaepernick” as at least part of the reason for protest. These include people such as Eric Reid, Jerry Rice, and Martellus Bennett, among other retired and active players. Players who kneel simply to offer support to Kaepernick offer no value to the protest other than to bring more attention to Kaepernick’s protests. This seems useful at face value, but bringing attention to a solitary action does absolutely nothing to address the issues that the action seeks to change. The protest thus becomes somewhat of an exercise in futility. There is still one more reason to protest - Kaepernick’s original thesis. The problem is that it is far too broad to lend itself to any tangible national policy, which means that the issue cannot easily lend itself to the creation of a resolution and chalk it up to the actions of NFL players. At best, anthem kneeling is designed to promote the awareness of critically important social issues, but cannot be unified in purpose and therefore, its effect is ultimately weakened even as the season progresses.

Several weeks into the 2017 NFL season, there was the most widespread protest to date, with 180 players kneeling, and an additional three entire teams staying in the locker room during the anthem. In total, 12% of the league kneeled, and 23% of the league chose not to participate in any way during the anthem. The causal action for this increase in protesting was an explicit speech by President Trump in which he argued that protesters should be fired immediately by their respective teams. How is it possible to reconcile this explanation of purpose with those offered by the players? It could be that the kneeling is a response only to an errant tweet, but Trump has not yet mentioned in his speeches any suggested reason for protest; he has only talked about the disrespect of kneeling. Trump has not attempted to solve his issues with the protest by figuring out what they represent. If the increase in protests in recent weeks was a protest against being insulted, then that adds only another reason for protest, in addition to all of the other explanations which have been offered, so if this is true, then kneeling has only lost even more purpose and potential effectiveness. Instead, it makes more sense that more football players are kneeling as a protest against the President himself, whom they see as an institution of the system which propagates that which the protest is aimed at changing. Look no further than the defending champions for an idea of how the NFL regards Trump. Several prominent members of the New England Patriots skipped their visit to the White House after winning the Super Bowl, citing a variety of reasons ranging from wanting more family time to feeling unwelcome in the White House. This is the basis of the inference that the players are protesting a President with whom they do not agree or support. This implies (at least based on the NFL protests) that the national anthem is a direct representation of the Office of the President, or that it is designed to give honor specifically to the President. This easily construes itself as monarchical, which not only contradicts everything on which the U.S. was founded, but also represents a primary complaint of anti-Trump commentators: that he is consolidating power in such a way as to strengthen the power of his office beyond Constitutionally devised constraints. Then, protesting the anthem as a way to protest Trump is a contradiction in terms. While attempting to discredit him, it suggests that honor is typically rendered to Trump prior to sporting events.

Opponents of kneeling protests have argued that the disrespect given to the flag overrides the positive impact of change, and that kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful to veterans and the military in particular. However, this claim does not hold up when compared to veteran reactions. On the same Sunday as the surge in protests, September 24, World War Two veteran John Middlemas took a backyard kneel to support the anthem protests in the NFL. His grandson tweeted that Mr. Middlemas thinks that “those kids have every right to protest.” Alejandro Villanueva, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, stood during the national anthem on September 24th and later apologized for not remaining in the locker room with the rest of his Steeler teammates. Veterans across the board seem divided on whether or not they think their service is disrespected by kneeling. Regardless of opinion, it is decidedly contrary to the Constitution to take action against these protests in the name of respecting veterans, because veterans themselves have no consensus regarding respect. These problems have not been limited to the NFL.

A similar issue has affected Arlington National Cemetery for over a decade. There are no flags allowed in Arlington National Cemetery, which includes the American flag. This seems surprising, and yet the explanation states that the ban is designed to protect free speech. In 2006, there was a noisy protest of a military funeral in the Cemetery, in which protesters used banners and signs. It seems easy enough to ban disrespectful signs and move on, but there is an issue when trying to define what constitutes a “disrespectful” sign, and furthermore, it flagrantly violates the free speech and the right of assembly of the protesters to ban their signs, no matter how inflammatory. This reflects what the ACLU stated, which, in their opposition to the law, was that disallowing any banners is paramount to government censorship. Thus, to protect free speech, lawmakers were forced to ban all banners from the Cemetery, which includes, unfortunately, the American flag. The same issue that plagued Arlington National Cemetery has caused division in the NFL.

This same logic can be applied to the NFL. If there is pressure to stand for the anthem to avoid the perception of disrespect, then this creates more problems than it solves. How does one define an action which is “disrespectful,” when the word itself is a relative term? What is seen as disrespectful by some may not be seen that way by others, and so to protect the rights of all involved, everyone must be able to do as they wish during the playing of the national anthem. However, when it comes to results of the protest, debates over peripheral issues such as disrespect of the flag (certainly valid arguments, but not the aim of the protesters) serve mainly to detract from the arguments of the protesters, which, just like the lack of focus in the protests, diminishes its own effectiveness.

It appears as though the NFL protests will not end until there is a resolution to the core issues. Despite its powerful momentum, the movement is handicapped by its lack of a well-defined purpose dating all the way back to Kaepernick’s original act of defiance, and by arguments over secondary issues thereafter. To achieve their aims, players involved must figure out precisely what they are protesting. They need to come up with some specific national policy or legislation. Otherwise, the protest has diminished effectiveness - it protests some nebulous issue, but does not offer any way to fix it. In addition, players involved must work to resolve the other arguments they face. Taking these actions will result in a significantly more unified protest, a much stronger protest, and a much more efficient way to address that which the players are protesting.