An issue which has been dominating recent news cycles has undergone some reframing.
The US President recently made a series of statements (/tweets) criticising Colin Kaepernick and his fellow NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, claiming their actions indicated a disrespect for the American flag. This acted as a catalyst for a debate which falsely placed patriotism at its centre, while providing a starting point to once again avoid discussing issues of race in America.
Covering this moment as a symbolic debate over patriotism misses the point. Players aren’t protesting America by proxy – they kneel in protest against police brutality, systemic inequality, and racial injustice that persists across the country. Their actions attempt to spark a much-needed discussion about the current state of America’s justice system, under which people of colour disproportionately experience its prosecutions while not feeling its protections. The National Anthem is not the talking point, but a vehicle through which players give voice to Philando Castille, Eric Gardner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and a veritable short novel of others whose justice system irreparably failed them twice over. Calling out these players for protesting the flag instead of addressing their intentions provides a cognitive shorthand to once again question the American identity, and thereby loyalty and love of country, of people of colour in America.
The language Trump used to address Kaepernick could be a fireable offence in any number of professions, and is still unable to be shown on some networks without censorship. This rhetoric is particularly appalling as it follows in stark contrast behind his appraisals of “some” white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville as “very fine people,” and when considering that he catapulted this story into the weekend headlines while 3.6 million American citizens were in crisis after the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico (hispanicfederation.org/donate).
Trump’s tweets also asserted that allowing players “the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL” should be mutually exclusive with the ability to engage with protest on the field. The exponential uptick in players taking a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick after the President’s attacks have similarly been met with criticisms that athletes should “stick to sports,” and should not have the scope to use their platform as NFL players/entertainers to discuss political issues. This argument is particularly ironic when considering the previous occupations of the President – combined with his continual use of his political platform to discuss TV/entertainment ratings (in the same speech that sparked this moment, at that), renders this argument null. If the issues that the President discusses in his political speeches become inherently politicised through coverage and commentary – and there is no shortage of breadth to those issues – then very little is left off limits. It is nearly impossible for non-politicians to “stay in their lane” and avoid politics when a significant amount of the cultural milieu has become politicised.Criticising the players for kneeling during the anthem also overlooks (or perhaps reveals an unawareness of) the fact that players only began routinely standing for the National Anthem in 2009 – not as an act of patriotism, but as a marketing strategy, financed by the NFL.
Even within the reframed debate over American patriotism, the NFL players are still not in the wrong; protests are patriotic. America was founded on protests, and they have never stopped shaping the nation throughout its timeline – from the “no taxation without representation” movement which led to a declaration of independence beginning in the 1760’s, to protests in Selma and Birmingham culminating in the voting and civil rights acts of the 1960’s, to the women’s marches earlier this year that incited the current year of political activism and engagement. Protests elevate the voices of those on the margins, and facilitate social change by challenging our leaders and policymakers to question the way things are. The nation is changing to keep pace with the world, and an integral part of loving that nation as an engaged citizen is to speak out when you see a significant number of its citizens being unaccounted for. The continued false equivalence between protesting the state of the justice system to protesting the country itself overlooks the debate these players intended for us to have; they want the justice system to do better for people who look like them.
In the context of America’s history, protests are inherently patriotic. Recent debates around the NFL shouldn’t be.