Analysis of the rising debate over race as NFL players kneel in protest
by Breanna Beers
On Sept. 17, six NFL players sat or knelt during the national anthem before the Sunday games. One week later, over 200 players joined the protests.
Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, first refused to stand during the August preseason to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality in America. Although a few of his teammates later joined him, the protests did not become widespread until President Trump drew attention to the kneeling athletes on Twitter.
“The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” Trump tweeted. “It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”
Trump later called for the NFL to fire players who refused to stand, threatened increased taxes for the league if the issue wasn’t resolved, and asked NFL fans to boycott games until standing for the anthem was mandated policy.
While Trump and others say that the peaceful protests are an act of contempt toward the anthem, the players themselves consistently reiterate that is not the message they wish to communicate.
49ers safety Eric Reid said kneeling was chosen over sitting specifically because it is a more respectful gesture. He compared the action to flying a flag at half-mast to mark a national tragedy — in this case, the way racial injustice continues to divide America.
Political science professor Dr. Mark Smith pointed out that in some ways the discomfort that comes from kneeling during the flag ceremony effectively provokes the dialogue the protests were meant to produce.
“Doing it during the flag creates the discomfort and the discussion, which are moving it forward,” Smith said. “It certainly leaves grounds for criticism … but I understand why they are doing it.”
Over the last few years, starting with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police brutality has become an increasingly heated topic in American society and in the political sphere.
“That’s not going to go away anytime soon,” Smith said. “No matter what you think about the validity of the protests … that’s still something that divides Americans.”
However, to many people it seems the dialogue around race has become increasingly polarized and politicized. To some degree, Smith said, race has always been a political issue — from the three-fifths clause in the Constitution to Jim Crow laws to the 1960s civil rights marches. Now, however, opinions on race are increasingly based on party lines.
“Democrats use it to try to divide their base from whites; Republicans use it to try to secure their base against racial minorities,” Smith said. “As long as both parties feel like they benefit from the division, they don’t have much of an incentive to work together to solve it.”
When racial prejudice is closely associated with a particular political party, it can also lead to problems in the world’s perception of the church.
History professor Dr. Murray Murdoch said this makes it more important than ever for Christians to demonstrate love in every encounter.
“The first thing we have to do is overcome our history, because our history has been racist,” Murdoch said. “It’s time we stop the nonsense and take on an appropriate role as Biblical leaders on the issue of race. I don’t believe in the social gospel, but I believe the gospel leads to social responsibility.”
While many agree that racial justice is a just cause, contention still swirls around the validity of the NFL protests. This is further complicated by the dramatic increase in the number of participating players following Trump’s inflammatory comments on Twitter.
“When the president interjected himself — especially calling for players to be fired and questioning the patriotism of what they were doing — it became a protest, to some extent, about the president,” said Smith. “It politicized the issue even more that it was politicized before, because it moved from the abstract, which is racial injustice, into the particular, there’s Donald Trump.”
Trump’s tweets made the issue of race only a backdrop to arguments about patriotism and about the president. However, Smith said he doesn’t believe Trump has done this accidentally.
“Donald Trump has figured out how to use social media in a way that no other president has,” Smith said. “He’s taking a dead issue and throwing gasoline on it, but I think he did it for a reason. I think he did it because he knew it would be an issue that could benefit him….Even though it created division, if he sees himself benefiting from that division, in his mind that’s good politics.”
The use of Twitter in particular has been prominent in the communication strategy of the Trump administration. Much as Roosevelt harnessed the radio and Kennedy the television, recent presidents have increasingly relied on the internet and social media as a means of communicating with the public.
Smith remarked on both the positive and the negative ways this is changing Americans’ relationship with the White House.
“It allows for dialogue, and in the hands of a president who is interested in unifying the country that could be very positive, but I don’t think that’s him,” Smith said. “And in his defense, I don’t think that’s most presidents. Most presidents don’t really act in a unifying way; they act in a divisive way. I don’t think it’s good for the long-term image of the president or the long-term good of the country.”
Murdoch put it more simply: “President Trump is not known for his moderation.”
Most of the discussion surrounding the NFL protests has moved away from what the protests originally stood for to instead what the president, the media, and the public have interpreted them to stand for.
However, one notable organization has remained relatively silent until now: the NFL leadership.
The NFL players’ manual says only that players “should” stand during the national anthem: a recommendation, not a mandate. The ambiguity of this statement, according to Murdoch, is a key factor in the protests.
“In a contractual relationship where you are working for your employer, you are not representing yourself on that football field, you are representing your employer,” said Murdoch. “The NFL as a business needs to decide what it wants to do.”
Recently, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell attempted to do just that: He released a memo reiterating that the NFL recommended that players stand but confirmed that the league won’t be enforcing a rule change.
Smith expressed cynicism about the NFL’s reason for interest in these protests.
“The NFL is a business, and the NFL wants to make sure that whatever it does, it plays well with the American people,” Smith said. “It’s the same motivation as why they have flag stuff before the game. It isn’t because they’re patriotic, it’s because they think it’s good business. They’re not doing it just because they love their country, they’re doing it because they think that creates the right atmosphere for the people who watch their product.”
Kaepernick, the player who first initiated these protests, remains a free agent — some say because of his refusal to stand. While he has indicated that he will be standing during the anthem next season, saying he doesn’t want the protest to detract from the positive growth that has already been made in the realm of racial justice, he remains unsigned for next season.
Breanna Beers is a freshman Molecular Biology and Journalism double major and an off-campus news writer for Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and quoting “The Princess Bride” whether it’s relevant or not.