By: Sarah Michels, Editor-in-Chief, Rosecall
Picture this: A crowded football stadium, saturated with energy and noise, fans and players alike getting pumped up for the big game. The sound is deafening, the team pride almost obnoxiously conspicuous in the colors the fans are clothed in. Suddenly, a hush falls over the crowd; a few oblivious voices continue to speak, but soon all chatter ceases. A singular voice echoes through the stadium as people turn towards the flag of the United States. Everyone places a hand over their heart, most take off their hats, and some even hum along. When the crescendo begins, it’s as if the entire world is holding its breath. “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” sings the performer, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” The moment is pure beauty; one snapshot of unison under a common patriotism before the competitive nature of the game divides.
But what if some people don’t believe what the National Anthem says? What if they think that the phrase “the land of the free” does not apply to the America of today? On August 14th, 2016, Colin Kaepernick answered these questions by sitting down during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Kaepernick is the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, and his statement initiated over a year of controversy surrounding the acceptability of sitting—or kneeling—during the Anthem.
Immediately, the nation responded with both backlash and praise. Some said that sitting during the anthem was disrespectful for those who fight and lose their lives for the US every day. Others said that Kaepernick’s actions started a national conversation that was long overdue. Kaepernick explained why he sat, saying,
“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought have for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”
The statement was meant to be a peaceful protest against police brutality and the corruptness of the criminal justice system when involving people of color, specifically the events of Ferguson, but its lack of organization confused its purpose for many Americans.
While some criticized, others stood—or rather, kneeled—in solidarity with Kaepernick. The first to do this was Eric Reid, a safety for the 49ers. Reid, along with Kaepernick, decided to change sitting to kneeling, in order to make the protest more respectful and to signify “a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy”, according to Reid. The “tragedy” is the racism of America, specifically its presence in authority figures such as police officers. Many others followed their example, and the protests continued throughout the football season.
This football season, exactly a year after the protest began, Michael Bennett, a Seahawks football player, sat down during the anthem in solidarity with the people targeted in Charlottesville. He said, “It was just a tipping point to see so much hate, and see so much hatred toward people. At the end of the day for me, it’s about being a human being and when those things are going on, there’s no way I could go out and try to hide behind the game.” Bennett has been a victim of police brutality himself, so he naturally feels very strongly about this issue. He released a statement on Twitter about his experience, which you can read here: https://twitter.com/mosesbread72/status/905430701595652096
Once again, more and more players followed in suit in the next few weeks of the football season. However, this time, the President responded. In a rally in Alabama on September 22nd, Donald Trump condemned those who knelt during the anthem, saying “Wouldn’t you love to see one of those NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bi**h off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump’s words only served to fuel the fire. More players began kneeling, this time against the President too. The NFL finally broke its silence on September 23rd, referring to Trump’s comments as “divisive” and praising its players for being a “force of good” in their communities. Seattle Seahawks coach also spoke up, stating,
“In this incredibly polarizing time, there’s no longer a place to sit silently. It’s time to take a stand. We stand for love and justice and civility. We stand for our players and their constitutional rights, just as we stand for equality for all people. We stand against divisiveness and hate and dehumanization. We are in the midst of a tremendously challenging time, a time longing for healing. Change needs to happen; we will stand for change. May we all have the courage to take a stand for our beliefs while not diminishing the rights of others as this is the beating heart of our democracy. As a team, we are united in a mission to bring people together to help create positive change. We can no longer remain silent. I will stand with our players”
Everyone in America wondered what the teams and players would do following Trump’s outburst. Their suspense ended when the entire Seahawks and Titans team remained in their locker rooms during the Anthem on September 24th. The teams explained that they were uniting “to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms.” What followed was a series of Tweets by Donald Trump reiterating what he said at the Alabama rally. A few of the most relevant ones include:
This issue has been a source of controversy, and both sides are passionate about their arguments. The main argument of those who disapprove of kneeling during the anthem is that it disrespects the armed forces. However, a letter signed by 35 US veterans said, “Far from disrespecting our troops, there is no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice than for Americans to enthusiastically exercise their freedom of speech.” Obviously, this doesn’t speak for all veterans, but when it comes down to it, the armed forces do what they do in order to ensure certain freedoms to Americans, one of which is the freedom to protest. This freedom is protected in the First Amendment of the Constitution, and so as long as protesters are not causing bodily harm, who is the media to say that their choice to protest isn’t valid or right?
Another central point is that sports are not a place for politics; fans don’t watch the game in order to keep up with national events; in fact, quite the opposite is typically true. However, some disagree with this statement. Chris Long, defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles, said, “There are some people who say they don’t want politics in sports. I don’t remember a time when fighting white supremacy was a political issue, but evidently it is for a couple people in this country, and that’s unfortunate.” Additionally, some oppose kneeling because they think football players should be grateful for the opportunity to play at a high level, and showing contempt for a country that makes that possible is rude and inappropriate. Although football players are not paid to make “political statements”, some issues are greater than football. Perhaps players such as Kaepernick deserve respect for using their national platform for something larger than themselves. After all, he knew that there would be negative consequences for his actions; they could have been grounds for expulsion from the team. As Bart Scott, former football player, commented, “It’s not equal justice and liberty for all. To stand up for what you believe in, to be willing to take the lumps and hits for what you believe in, I think he should be commended.” While those who kneel personally might not have experienced the oppression they are speaking out against, they are a voice for those who are forced into silence, and I believe that is more important than standing during the Anthem.
Lastly, many say that there are other ways to make this statement; it didn’t have to be done during the Anthem. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints quarterback, is of this opinion, saying, “it’s an oxymoron that you’re sitting down, disrespecting the flag that has given you the freedom to speak out.” I understand this sentiment, but I believe that the irony of the situation is precisely what gives it so much strength. Kneeling during the Anthem does not break legal rules, but it does break social rules, and this grey area is exactly what started the national conversation. It feels wrong, even though it technically isn’t, and that’s what gets people talking. Time will tell whether this conversation will reap any actual social change, but in my opinion, the attempt is valiant in itself. As Jed York, owner of the San Francisco 49ers, stated, “Our players have exercised their rights as United States citizens in order to spark conversation and action to address social injustice. We will continue to support them in their peaceful pursuit of positive change in our country and around the world.”
The media is focusing on the wrong aspect of this issue. They are spending most of their time deciding whether to approve or condemn players’ kneeling during the National Anthem, while ignoring the reasons behind their actions. The question shouldn’t be the acceptability of kneeling during the anthem; it should be “Why are these players kneeling?” and “What can we do about it?”. We all have different opinions and come from different environments, but part of being a member of a democratic country is respecting the rights of others to disagree. You don’t have to kneel during the Anthem to respect the beliefs of those who do, and you don’t have to stand for it to respect the beliefs of those who stand. You simply need to realize that kneeling is only the face of a much bigger issue: the police brutality and corruptness of the criminal justice system concerning people of color. Let’s focus on that, and create a country that truly is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”