Aug. 26, 2016. Niners Nation’s Jennifer Lee Chan tweets out a photo of the pregame national anthem during an NFL preseason game. In the bottom of the frame, behind the rest of his team, quarterback Colin Kaepernick sits on a bench, head down, alone in a silent protest — one that would cost him dearly.
The football world has spent over a year tackling that protest and the ensuing player protests, primarily through heavy-handed conversation about patriotism and “our troops,” or trying to dictate what is and isn’t the proper forum for protest. There was also plenty of good, nuanced discussion surrounding the topic (for a recent example, I’d recommend “Colin Kaepernick Has a Job” by Rembert Browne for Bleacher Report), but the majority of conversation surrounding the protests missed the mark.
Just over a year after Colin Kaepernick made his initial statement, we’re not even in the same realm as his message.
On Sept. 22, President Donald Trump spoke at a campaign rally in Alabama. In front of screaming supporters, he lobbied for NFL owners to take a stand against anthem protests.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!’”
There’s a lot to unpack here. There’s the obvious absurdity of the president of the United States making a statement against someone’s use of the First Amendment to fight for equal rights after refusing to condemn white supremacy. There’s the president stepping in to tell a private organization to fire an employee because he disagrees with the employee’s message. There’s also the president using vulgarities to demean American citizens in front of a large crowd of people, on camera.
That’s all pretty wild. The craziest part, though? It worked.
Not only did he manage to make protests meant to tackle police violence into a different battle with him standing on the side of patriotism, but he also tore to pieces the last vestiges of the core meaning of Colin Kaepernick’s original decision to sit out the anthem.
In the ensuing days, in every NFL game, players made statements of their own against the president, trying to show him that they stand together against his reductive stance on their ability to protest however they want.
The main message of these demonstrations came down to the idea of “unity.” Players stood, arm in arm, during the anthem. A show of solidarity and strength, sure. But it moves the goalposts for discussion on the entire topic to yield a completely different discussion about First Amendment rights and patriotism.
Among the players, many NFL owners stood in solidarity with their players.
Those same owners are the ones that donated significantly to the Trump campaign. They’re the ones leaving Colin Kaepernick unemployed because of his protests. Besides simply redirecting the conversation away from an uncomfortable topic, the protests offered these owners amnesty they haven’t fairly earned. If owners really care about the unfair environment this country provides to minorities, they would have hired Colin Kaepernick months ago.
The protest isn’t about police brutality disproportionately affecting minorities anymore. It’s not about the fact that black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Now, it’s about “unity.”
It’s all likely well-intentioned, and it makes a strong statement against the divisiveness facing the country, but it all conveniently ignores the crux of that division. The central reason for the division, and Kaepernick’s original protest, is race. “Unity” has its roots in the idea of race, but it’s a neutered look at it. It says “look at these football players, they all support each other, we can too!” What these protests should be saying, and how they began, is “look at how far some of these players are willing to go to make us realize how unfair the treatment of minorities is in America.”
Colin Kaepernick knelt so we’d take notice and have to come to uncomfortable realizations about the world we live in. He likely lost his job because of it. He put his career at risk so that people would have to face the idea that black people are unfairly targeted in their own communities by those who swear to protect and serve. Using his platform to force the country to think about police violence was the most heroic and important thing anyone has accomplished in years on the field, and it seems like we’re about to let his message pass right by us.
This was never about “the troops.” It was never about the right to protest, at least not directly. It certainly wasn’t about the idea of patriotism, and how to show your love for your country.
The players making the original statements, led by Kaepernick, aren’t against soldiers and they don’t hate America. They kneel because we live in an America that puts the most jeopardized members of society at risk every single day without taking notice. They kneel because despite years and years of fighting, there still isn’t really freedom and equality for people of color in America.
Diluting that message takes the focus off of what we should be talking about right now: police violence. Philando Castle, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many, many others, unfairly targeted and gunned down in their neighborhoods, no justice granted to them or their families.
Kaepernick’s protest is a specific one with wider applications. The bastardized version trumpeted out by the NFL — whether well intentioned but misguided or intentionally misdirected — is the exact opposite.
“Unity” doesn’t get us closer to a real conversation about race and the plagues of police violence. It doesn’t set our sights on the specific issues or direct us towards working for a better future for black people in America. It’s perfectly vague, enough so to feel applicable to the division in the country without actually calling attention to anything in particular. It’s perfect for the NFL, taking some of the edge off of anthem protests and allowing the league to avoid the tough conversations that could expose it as the bastion of backwards thinking it has shown itself to be for years. For the (primarily white) fans that want to avoid facing uncomfortable reality, those that aren’t faced with that reality on a daily basis, it’s also perfect. But for the country, one that has problems that need to be faced head-on, and Colin Kaepernick’s legacy, it falls short.
Kaepernick didn’t kneel to make a statement about the troops, patriotism or “unity.” He knelt so people sitting comfortably in their homes, watching primarily black athletes endanger their brains and bodies for sport, had to face the fact that the real danger for many young black athletes lies on the streets, wearing uniforms of a different type.