In August 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to sit for the national anthem before games, as a protest of police violence towards African-Americans.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told media. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
This small form of protest outraged some Americans who either believe athletes should stay out of politics, or that his protest disrespected our country’s police, the flag, our military, or some combination of all of the above. After a former Green Beret wrote an opinion piece directed at Kaepernick, in which he defended the football player’s right to sit but still found it disrespectful, Colin met with the veteran. As a compromise, Kaepernick agreed to kneel instead of sit.
“As we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee because there are issues that still need to be addressed and there was also a way to show more respect for the men and women that fight for this country.” Kaepernick continued to do so for the rest of the 2016 NFL season, despite claims that his actions were causing the biggest ratings slump for the NFL in years. Nevertheless he soldiered on, and regardless of your thoughts on the issue of police brutality, he got people talking.
Unfortunately, after Kaepernick’s contract with San Francisco ran out, he has lingered as a free agent and has for all intents and purposes been blackballed from the league due to his political message. Sports analysts at FiveThirtyEight wrote, “Kaepernick’s ability to play the position no longer seems to be in doubt. Players have spoken in support of Kaepernick, and most serious analysis reliant on game study arrives at the conclusion that Kaepernick is not just a competent quarterback, but is also better than he was when he led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013… No above-average quarterback has been unemployed nearly as long as Kaepernick this offseason.”
But this trend did not stop with Kaepernick. More football players have decided to kneel in protest, and with that along came President Trump. At a political rally in Alabama, Trump told the crowd that players who did not stand are “sons of bitches” who should be fired.
My colleague Steve Lamb has already wrote on why he believes Kaepernick’s expression should be defended, and to that extent, I agree with him. Kaepernick’s protest is a protected form of expression under our Constitution’s right to free speech, and his act of kneeling is a humble one that speaks louder than words. Now that Trump has introduced himself to the controversy, like so many other things he has made it solely about himself. As Trump denounced the kneeling, a surge of support for the protest began, but not for the right reasons. Taking the knee has now become associated with opposing Trump, instead of the incredibly salient point of fighting police brutality and the systemic racism that plagues our nation.
Many have already pointed out the hypocrisy of Trump calling non-violent protesters “sons of bitches,” while saying Neo-Nazis are “very fine people.” Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that points to Trump’s unique pattern of racism, but co-opting this demonstration to only oppose Trump misses the point entirely. Saying “Trump is bad” does nothing to stop the militarization of our nation’s police, or to address that use of deadly force is no longer a last resort. But solving these problems means implementing a new policy, and no politician wants to be seen as “anti-cop” by their constituency.
I say to hell with that. I don’t want to live in a police state just because politicians don’t want to ruffle feathers. Our law enforcement officers need to take a deep look at themselves and realize that a bad apple spoils the bunch. The only way to regain the trust of their communities is to be held accountable for their actions, or football players won’t be the only ones protesting.