Over the last weekend, our rookie President made his poorly-informed opinion known about the First Amendment rights of NFL, NBA, and MLB players who choose to kneel during the National Anthem at the beginning of professional sports games. Originally an individual effort, former 49er’s Quarterback Colin Kaepernick caused a lot of controversy when he first kneeled to protest “wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the United States” back in 2016. Since Kaepernick’s interview in August of 2016, America hasn’t exactly made any progress in addressing racial tension, and other professional athletes, some whole teams, have decided to use their platform to draw attention to the issue as well. Unfortunately, this protest serves as an excellent microcosm from which we can explore common themes that perpetuate racism in the United States.
First and foremost, the main message of this protest is distorted and obscured in such a way that centers the feelings of white people. The first way in which it’s distorted is through disqualification. One of the favorite critiques of this protest is that professional athletes make too much money to be complaining about oppression. While it’s understandable that people would be frustrated that those who are far wealthier than them could consider themselves oppressed, it fails to recognize the common fallacy that lies in conflating issues of race and class. Contrary to the narrative of meritocracy, simply being in possession of wealth does not make a person immune from discrimination based on race – especially if it occurred in the past. While it might shelter or prevent someone from facing the negative economic impacts of racial discrimination immediately, it doesn’t nullify or make experiences of racism unreal.
The second way this protest is distorted is through the message itself. Despite protesters being quite clear with their intentions, talking heads like Tomi Lahren, Tucker Carlson, and even Sarah Huckabee Sanders have been complicit in constructing a nationwide strawman that supposes athletes are protesting the flag, American armed forces, and as hyperbolic as it sounds, America in general. As a consequence, hard-working folks have convinced themselves that they are responding in kind by destroying jerseys, coats, and tickets they have already paid for as a symbol of their discontent for the NFL and the players protesting. Without engaging with the issues of systemic discrimination, people have dismissed the argument by insisting those who do not stand for the Pledge or the flag are simply disrespectful of America and the people who serve(d) in our military.
The third and final way this protest is distorted is through obfuscation. People critical of the protests also present a false dichotomy in which players kneeling during the Pledge aren’t doing anything to solve the problems they are protesting. Media attention via depriving America of its favorite pastimes aside, professional athletes are some of the most effective philanthropists in our society. In particular, Colin Kaepernick set up a foundation “to fight oppression of all kinds globally, through education and social activism” by donating $1,000,000 to organizations that engage inner-city youth, help homeless people, or advocate for people-based public policy.
If we dive deeper into this controversy, we will find this isn’t the first time it’s happened either. Professional athletes who have used their platform for social activism – particularly racial equity – have been met with hostility. Why? To spectators and fans, athletes are representations of their hometown, an extension of themselves. Especially when it contradicts their narrative, it is completely unacceptable to some people that their political and individual agency encroach upon their duty to entertain and represent their locale. Intentional or not, in tandem with the apathy towards their cause, the suggestion that Black athletes should just ‘stop complaining and do their job’ echoes the sentiments of slave-owners and chain-gang operators of years past.
When we zoom out to look at professional sports at large, the uncritical eye might suggest we’ve reached a level of equity unseen in other industries because Black people are overwhelmingly represented in America’s favorite professional sports. However, this perspective diverges from the way we discern how diverse an industry is. Race theorist and basketball enthusiast Ibram Kendi suggests: “We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sports writers, like the executives.” If those groups “are lily-white, then [a sport] is simply not diverse.”
As the NFL continues its season, and Donald Trump begins to double-down on anti-Constitutional rhetoric, it will be interesting to see how the market responds to looming boycotts and continued controversy. Stay tuned!