Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the NFL controversy started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016, when he began kneeling during the national anthem before his games as a way to protest against racial injustice in the US. He and his supporters have caught tons of flak for this, with the main argument against the protests being that kneeling during the anthem disrespects the flag and the military.
Today, I saw this tweet, which includes the NFL’s official statement and new rules for these extremely controversial protests for the upcoming season. Take a second to click on it and read the NFL’s statement on players kneeling during the national anthem:
The statement starts out with some promising words:
“We are dedicated to continuing our collaboration with players to advance the goals of justice and fairness in all corners of our society.”
They then have a lot more words affirming the patriotism of NFL players, mentioning that the situation created by the protests is somewhat unique within sports and within business. But despite the first statement I highlighted, the NFL’s statement announces this:
“This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the Anthem may stay in the locker room until after the Anthem has been performed.”
Previously, players were required to be on the field for the national anthem, and players who knelt have been personally fined. Now, they are no longer required to be on the field, which gives protesting players a kind of loophole, and if a player does kneel on the field, his team will be fined, not him.
You can call this rule a fair compromise. Players still technically get to protest by staying in the locker room during the anthem, if they desire. Fans don’t have to be offended during something that’s supposed to be entertainment. The NFL doesn’t get bad publicity from people who disagree.
But that, I think, is a very privileged way to view this ruling. By not allowing protesting players onto the field, they are essentially silenced. They’ll be out of sight, so they’ll be out of mind. No one will have to look at kneeling players and think for one moment about America’s history of bias against black people. We won’t have to even think about examining our own actions or consider the reality that roughly 13% of Americans live with every day. Source
I get that the NFL is a business, and players have technically been protesting during their working hours. That is a tricky situation. But the US has a long, long history of silencing marginalized groups of people, and this is just the next iteration.
The kneeling protests were exactly what a “good” protest is supposed to look like: it was silent. Unobtrusive. Nonviolent. Kaepernick, who started the entire movement, didn’t even say anything about why he was sitting until he was asked about it by a reporter. And after that, he had a conversation with a veteran, and then actually switched to kneeling from sitting in order to show more respect to the military while maintaining his protest. Source
But what did the public do with it? The public took offense. Some were angry that a black man was criticizing the US (because apparently we’re infallable as a nation and to suggest otherwise is close to treason!). But the reason a lot of people hate Kaepernick is because they believe he disrespects the military by kneeling. And this stance continues, even though you can search the hastag #VeteransForKaepernick and find thousands of actual military members supporting him.
The huge amount of attention this has gotten Kaepernick and others is risky for the NFL as a business. Publicity is hard to deal with, especially when half of it is negative. Businesses have to try to create balanced solutions to public issues in order to preserve their brand integrity and maintain the most customers.
But businesses also have a responsibility to protect their employees, especially when that business has huge influence and employs members of marginalized people groups. People are what allow big business to exist, so it makes the most sense to protect those people and their rights, including the right to peacefully protest. If the NFL had, instead of silencing their players, backed them up and reiterated that they have the right to protest, who knows what kind of progress we could have made in reducing the violence and bias against black Americans? Now we’ll never know.
As always with things like this, huge thanks to one of my bestest friends for discussing this with me and bringing up some great points and helping me clarify my own views! Here’s her Insta and her blog, Rants You Didn’t Ask For — check out what she has to say.