With the 2017 NFL season fully underway, it would appear the league has become something far more than just a sporting stage, but a way to give voice and national awareness to social issues. NFL players began protesting in 2016 by kneeling during the National Anthem. The quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, started the protests during preseason last year, in order to highlight the significance of police brutality towards African Americans, and racial inequality in the United States.
Kaepernick’s simple action of kneeling triggered other NFL players to follow suit, with the 2017 season starting amid extensive protests across the majority of NFL teams. A national debate has followed, sparked by the inevitable tweets issued by President Donald Trump, claiming them to be ‘unpatriotic’ and disrespectful of the United States flag and military. President Trump’s harsh message went as far to claim, in September this year, that owners of NFL teams should fire their players for disrespecting the American national anthem. Over 200 players kneeled during the National Anthem in the next set of games; many owners and managers, such as Patriots owner Robert Kraft, expressed dissatisfaction with Trump’s comments and solidarity with their players.
“The anthem is a vehicle to protest police brutality”
The US National anthem is a source of great pride for most Americans: citizens traditionally listen to it with a hand over their heart, whilst standing in respect for fallen soldiers and the police services. Kneeling during the anthem, therefore, draws direct attention to the police force, a simple act that clearly targets the problematic nature of the current police culture in the US. In the past few years there have been numerous occasions of seemingly unwarranted violence exerted towards African-American citizens, with a significantly higher amount of police shootings towards African-Americans than white citizens posing the exact same threat, or committing the same crime. Police violence is one of the crucial reasons for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that spread across the nation.
Kaepernick, the initial protestor, has previously explained his decision to kneel during the anthem claiming: ‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour’. His decision to kneel was supported by President Barack Obama in 2016 who claimed the protest encouraged people to discuss the issues at hand. The 49ers quarterback has followed his protest with immense charity work including donating his salary to organisations which look to tackle racial inequality in society, with his social work leading to his naming as Most Valuable Player in the first week of play this year. The protests now include club owners such as the Dallas Cowboys Jerry Jones and players who choose not to kneel, but instead lock their arms with team members to show support for the movement. Many players are attempting to separate their protest from the National Anthem itself with the Cowboys choosing to kneel before the anthem, with others such as the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans choosing to remain in the locker room until after the anthem has been played. The protests have since spread to other sports and to music, for example Stevie Wonder kneeling during the Global Citizen Festival.
The relationship between politics and sport has also been brought under the spotlight in Europe this week, as the effects of the independence referendum in Catalonia influencing Spanish football. Barcelona recently welcomed Las Palamas with an empty stadium – the game playing out to just the media, coaches and stadium staff -, claiming to be protesting the ‘violent clashes between police and activists in Catalonia’. This was met with a response from the World tennis No.1 Rafael Nadal, who claimed that ‘Sport and politics are not the same, in my opinion’ and ‘we need to start separating things’.
“sport and politics are not the same”
– RAFAEL NADAL
The relationship between politics and sport has always been one of great controversy, with the national and often international coverage of sporting events allowing players to reach a large audience. When most people think about the Civil Rights Movement they recall a memorable image of the 1968 Black Power Salute at the Olympic games in Mexico City. The gold and bronze medal winners in the 200m event, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, wore a single black glove and raised their fists during the playing of the National Anthem in the medals ceremony. As with the current kneeling protests, this was heavily criticized by officials, with the International Olympic Committee claiming it was inappropriate to bring domestic issues to an international celebration of sport and the US track team was threatened with a potential ban. Following the event, the two sprinters became isolated from the track community and reportedly received numerous death threats and messages of abuse. Both men interestingly turned to football, with Smith starting for the Cincinnati Bengals, and Carlos moving to the Canadian Football league. Despite being heavily criticised for bringing politics into the sporting world, it is undeniable that the Black Power protests made a significant contribution to Civil Rights in the United States. Not only did this bring the movement to the attention and scrutiny of the international community, but it is still memorialised today as an outstanding act of protest which encouraged African Americans to keep pushing for their rights. Clearly, if athletes and sports teams have the ability to make their voices heard, and to bring attention to people whose voices may otherwise not be heard, they can make a huge difference.
With regards to the NFL protests specifically, recent events have shown that there is still a high level of racial inequality latent within the United States. Whilst many people believe sport should be a celebration free from the divisions often found in political discourse, the impact that athletes can have on highlighting key social issues is one that they should not simply ignore. Throughout history, there are numerous examples of protests within sport, the majority of which are remembered as moments of great courage and act as an inspiration to athletes now. If anything, when the democratic rights of citizens to speak or act as they choose in a peaceful way are being condemned by the President of the United States, there is far more reason for athletes to use their sporting stage as one which can instigate change.