“Stick to sports.” “Shut up and dribble.”
Statements like these have flooded American news and social media over the past years, as athletes have become a part of the political war being waged between those who diverge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). Going back to 2016 with Colin Kaepernick, the first player to kneel for the cause, America has split between two types of people: those who support the movement (or at least support player’s rights to peacefully protest), and those that believe it is disrespectful to the military or the country to kneel. The latter includes a vocal variety of people in power including everyone from President Donald Trump’s administration, Senator Tom Cotton, Laura Ingraham, and more.
One of the most common sentiments expressed by this group is that athletes making millions a year should not be sitting on a stage teaching others about privilege. And yet, looking at what kneeling as a protest actually stands for in the case of BLM, one thing becomes apparent: to say that the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), or any other major leagues’ players shouldn’t kneel as they are ‘wealthy’ is utterly ignorant.
It’s no secret that today, the NBA and NFL are the most African-American dominated leagues. The NBA is 81.1% African American and the NFL is made up of approximately 68%. Considering the fact that athletes can be affected by police brutality regardless of race or socioeconomic background, you would think they have just as much of a right as anyone else to protest and yet people have managed to turn the wealth disparity between these athletes and the average person into a reason as to why they should not be protesting.
For all the arguments made, this is possibly the most inconsiderate one of all as it completely discounts the adversity that many African American athletes grew up in due to the neighborhoods they happened to be born into. It also fails to acknowledge that racism exists no matter what income class one is in. White privilege as a concept does not mean that white people do not face any comparable issues to other races, it simply means their race will never be the cause of their problems whereas in the case of minorities, it can be. Similarly, being a famous athlete does not make one immune to issues such as police brutality it just means that they will not deal with struggles caused by socioeconomic differences along with racial issues. Take Sterling Brown’s experience with the Milwaukee police department for instance. Despite being a famous basketball player, Brown was arrested and tased by Milwaukee police after an interaction with them over handicapped parking outside of a drug store. While the department initially defended their officers as they claimed Brown had been aggressive, the release of body cam footage demonstrated that not only had Brown not shown said aggression but that the officers after tasing him had felt the need to stand on his ankle as well causing the department to retract their statements and develop a more supportive stance. And while I by no means am claiming that Brown’s case was necessarily racism on part of the officers, it certainly demonstrates a failure of police to de escalate situations and a failure to condemn such actions until faced with public backlash. It shows that regardless of how rich you might be, the justice system in this country can fail anyone.
With that in mind, how can someone tell athletes such as say, Lebron James, that he is wealthy and thus too privileged to speak out saying black lives matter? Or that he can’t say that there is a serious disparity between the justice system’s treatment of the black community and others when he began his fourth grade essentially homeless, living in a one bedroom apartment of his mom’s friend? When he lived off of welfare for a large portion of his childhood? Or when he missed 100 days of school in one year because he could not get transportation to and from school? Or that he can’t talk about over policing when he grew up in a single parent home because his father was in jail?
When more than half of all NFL players come from a county with a poverty rate higher than the national average, and almost 70% are African American, these athletes are not speaking up about topics they know nothing about. Many have experienced that same inner city poverty and the social justice issues they seek to fight against by supporting BLM. People need to stop taking the face value of their lives as it is now as a measure of everything they have been through. Viewers often don’t get or want to see the director’s cut of these athletes’ lives, only the highlight reels. As a viewer, one cannot follow two leagues that are composed of majority African American athletes and then expect these players to stay silent about situations that can or have affected them.
Another big question in all of this is: is kneeling during the anthem actually disrespectful to the flag, or has it become a domino effect that is wildly exaggerated and incorrect?
A sentiment prevalent among those against kneeling including our current President and his administration is that it is disrespectful towards veterans and the flag in general and that there are other platforms for athletes to use. Yet, there are a multitude of things that suggest otherwise.
One of the parts of the 2016 protests that went ignored when it came to Kaepernick kneeling is that he got the idea from a veteran. Nate Boyer, a US Army Green Beret (one of the highest ranking positions in the military), suggested to Kaepernick that kneeling would “...get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from pride in our country but keep the focus on what the issues really are.” And yet the reception by the general public, was one of instant disapproval. The biggest complaint from people when it came to kneeling was that it is disrespectful to people in the military, but if veterans themselves are split over the issue and have some who support it, should people who have never served really be using it as a reason to go against BLM in sports? A huge demonstration of this hypocrisy by the NFL and other league’s fanbases is NFL reception to Pat Tillman. Tillman was a former NFL player who was killed while serving in Afghanistan. The NFL being one of the most ‘patriotic’ fanbases has used him as a visionary of American patriotism and a supposed opposer to everything Colin Kapaernick did by kneeling. The NFL honors his death annually, propagandizing the true story behind Pat Tillman’s death. Tillman was a soldier who once confided in his brother that he believed that what the American army was doing in Afghanistan was, ““f---ing illegal”. His death was originally portrayed as a war casualty until it came out that he was killed by ‘friendly fire’. Pat Tillman was killed by an American soldier in one of the most controversial military death cases and yet he has become a poster child for anti-kneeling fans and leaders to use as their image of everything Colin Kapaernick failed to represent. The NFL’s and the administration's treatment of Colin Kapaernick and their weaponization of people like Pat Tillman shows nothing but their ability to turn people, including soldiers, into pawns in political agendas.
Secondly, the U.S. Flag Code states nothing against kneeling during the anthem. While the Commander in Chief does have the power to alter the flag code, our current flag code does not find kneeling in front of the flag to be an offense. Instead, wearing the flag in any way shape or form, even on a uniform while not being a soldier is against flag code. Embroidering on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs or printing the flag on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard is against flag code. There are multitudes of day to day materialistic things aside from kneeling in front of a flag that go against flag code and yet people who use such objects are considered more patriotic than those who are using their rights in a respectful way in order to protest a significant issue in American society.
Lastly, “do it at a different time” or “use a different platform” is one of the most ironic statements heard as it literally demonstrates that if athletes didn’t choose to protest at a time when everyone watching a football game would have to witness, they would get completely ignored. The whole point of a protest is to stand out and to grab people’s attention. If athletes started simply discussing BLM during their press conferences or kneeling after they scored, half of their viewership would choose to not take notice of the point they were trying to get across in the first place.
Patriotism is not represented by hanging up American flags and celebrating the Fourth of
July every year. Patriotism is using the rights granted to all of us by this country in
order to better it. If people, including our President, truly cared about veterans they
would be trying to help the thousands that are currently homeless due to our lack of
welfare and awareness about unemployment struggles for them. They wouldn’t blast
fireworks once a year in order to commemorate people whose PTSD gets triggered due to
the noises every Independence Day. They would learn that blind faith and nationalism are
not how society progresses, and that when it comes to social justice, no movement for
positive change has ever been made based on praise for a country or system that has
failed to protect the people that are a part of it. It is not the media that divided the
country over BLM in sports nor is it athletes. It was the divisive rhetoric of the
people who labeled these athletes as “sons of b-tches” for trying to make a change for
the better that split America.
*The author does not claim to represent all the opinions of all the members of the Postpartisan in this essay.