Are you ready for some football? How about some protest? This Super Bowl Sunday, we’re discussing the importance of protest, and what better place to start than with the NFL’s recent treatment of Colin Kaepernick?
As you have likely seen, Kaepernick began sitting and later kneeling during the national anthem before football games, a silent but striking protest against the oppression of Black people in the United States.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color… 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.” – Kaepernick (NFL.com)
The result? Kaepernick inspired other players and a national conversation on race, and… now has no job. He’s suing the NFL for collusion between teams to keep him off a roster.
Most outrage at Kaepernick’s kneel is cited as disrespect for the flag and veterans. Nevermind that he is expressing his freedom of speech that they fought for, and nevermind that Kaepernick changed from sitting to kneeling at the request of Green Beret Nate Boyer.
“Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect,” Boyer has said.
Sports have often been the stage for political protests, such as the famous Human Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics. Sports, like entertainment, reaches a broad swath of people that need to be moved to action. People with the power to be heard occasionally take advantage of that power to stimulate change and give voices to the voiceless.
There’s a common refrain to “keep politics out of sports” or “keep politics out of science” or a dozen other things. These requests ignore the fact that politics is inextricably linked to all of these things. Race is inextricably linked to them as well. Black players weren’t even allowed in football until 1946. Despite the majority of Black players, most quarterbacks remain white, and white people are favored in the coaching hierarchy.
“White people were both more likely to be hired into positions with the best chance of leading to a head coaching job and, once hired, were more likely to be promoted than were similarly performing minority coaches.” – Bloomberg
As Kareem Abdul puts it in an excellent article that you should read called “Why the NFL player protests still matter”: “They’re facing disparity in their own artificially turfed backyards.”
White viewers are happy for Black football players to entertain them, but can’t handle peaceful symbols that ask them to remember that Black people, both in football and beyond, are still not treated as equals.
Protest is meant to be disruptive. It is meant to force thought and action, to inconvenience, to get attention, to demand an answer. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
Sit-ins in the South disrupted commerce and the flow of everyday activities (like eating lunch at the all-white lunch counter) to spark public awareness and push the Civil Rights Movement forward. The Selma to Montgomery marches (which culminated in Bloody Sunday) along the highway called attention to voting rights. Black people continue to disrupt and push the conversation, because a comfortable White populus will never be moved to action without it.
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Protest and the right to assemble is as American as apple pie. The modern Black Lives Movement continues the long tradition of Black protest in this country. MLK was an agitator and a disruptor then, regularly vilified in the media much the way modern protesters are. Modern Black activists and protesters also get the newly created label “Black Identity Extremist,” courtesy of the FBI.
A Washington Post Perspective article notes: “According to sources close to the FBI, the term ‘Black Identity Extremist’ didn’t exist before the Trump administration. But while the designation is newly manufactured, the strategies and tactics behind it are not. For anyone who remembers how the FBI used extrajudicial means to target civil rights leaders and other activists through COINTELPRO, the pretext is clear: Neutralize people or organizations whose attitudes or beliefs the federal government perceives as threatening.”
Just a few things to keep in mind if you see someone kneeling during the game today. And if you decide you need a new shirt, you can go here.