Last football season, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt while the national anthem played before a game. He stated afterward that his intentions were to demonstrate solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and protest police brutality in our country.
The after-effects of Kaepernick’s actions have been exponential, with teams across major league sports deciding to also “take a knee,” President Trump and Vice President Pence condemning the actions and fans standing strongly on one side of the issue or the other.
“I am floored that the NFL has become a partisan issue,” says professor of political science, Dr. Michael Frank.
The Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Chargers, Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints are just a few teams that have gained national attention for kneeling during the national anthem. One would be hard-pressed to find an NFL team not somehow involved in this movement.
On Sunday, Vice President Pence left the Colts-49ers game early after several 49ers players knelt during the national anthem. Colts players locked arms.
Pence tweet that he left because he “will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our flag or our national anthem.”
The trip to Indianapolis, which the White House says was planned far in advance, likely cost taxpayers more than $250,000 in airfare alone. Those supporting the players’ rights to kneel have spoken against the extravagant cost of travel. Additionally, supporters of the Take a Knee movement have claimed that Pence’s protest against NFL protests is contradictory.
Pence tweeted, “While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the flag and our national anthem.”
Before the Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans faced off on Sept. 24, the teams made a joint decision to remain in their locker rooms while the national anthem played. The Pittsburgh Steelers opted to do the same that day, with only one player—former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva—taking the field for the national anthem.
Amidst backlash from President Trump, several players and teams are now electing to link arms during the national anthem in place of kneeling.
As Frank explains, while “civil protests start simply as movements to bring attention and public understanding to something,” they often morph into completely different issues. This is especially true when the platform for people wishing to speak out is the NFL, an enterprise under the watchful eyes of millions worldwide.
“These athletes have an opportunity and a national platform to bring attention to issues they care deeply about,” says Frank. He explains how we lend our support to movements and causes every day by changing our Facebook profile picture or tweeting a hashtag. The difference lies in the fact that we have much less of a following, so less controversy will follow in our wake.
Frank believes that in a democratic political system, these kinds of actions are inevitable. Additionally, “The fact of the matter is there are people with opposing views,” he says. “The nature of a democracy is that, if I come out and support one thing, there are going to be people on the other side who disagree.”
The controversial point does not seem to be that NFL players and teams are taking a stand against what they perceive to be injustice. The question for most is whether kneeling during the national anthem was the proper way for Kaepernick, and subsequently multitudes of others, to support their cause.
“We need to do things in a civil fashion, and I don’t see anything uncivil in his actions,” states Frank. However, “Sometimes the means you use to protest civilly may create backlash that overpowers the positive attention you’re trying to bring to the issue.”
As for the success of the Take a Knee Movement, only time will tell. Many events capture the attention of the nation temporarily and are pushed to the backburner when something new arises.
“Our attention goes to a lot of different places,” says Frank. “Public opinion about a certain issue rises at the height of action and then disappears when our attention shifts to another issue.”
The point of protests such as this is to create a spectacle that remains constantly in public attention. “This is how it becomes something we’re concerned with,” he says. “This is how issues turn up on the political agenda as something we need to address.”
Another question rising in the wake of the controversy is whether the sports world and the political world should remain separate. “Integration is inevitable,” says Frank.
“When you have access to reaching so many people and you feel compelled to use that reach, you will have some kind of impact,” says Frank. As an American citizen, one has the right to use whatever platform they are given to exercise their political responsibility.
However, at the same time, “Issues that are more widely accepted, and therefore less controversial, don’t need this same kind of civil display.”