It’s hard not to look at international politics in the past year without stumbling across the latest outburst of President Trump as he takes a stand against immigration, accessible healthcare, gender rights, gun control or racial inequality. With the dialogue of race relations remaining of paramount importance to the nation, the #TakeAKnee campaign has taken the issue to the sports field of the American people, making it prime time broadcasting to millions across the nation, as they tune in to watch their favourite teams battle it out for victory on the field.
Kaepernick[‘s] apparent disloyalty was in fact a protest, not against the country, or the anthem, but against the treatment of African Americans in the United States.
Popularised during the First World War, and introduced nationwide at the start of national league sports competitions during the 1950s, the national anthem has played a fundamental role in the sporting culture of the United States for the last century. Fans and players alike have stood steadfast for the anthem, in support of their country, and for the various social and cultural representations that the flag and the anthem represent. So then, why has the kneeling of players during the national anthem, at the commencement of National Football League games, caused such widespread controversy? Opposition to standing for the national anthem started last August, with San Francisco 49er’s Colin Kaepernick remaining seated during the national anthem in his first game of the season. Media outlets soon caught on to the story wanting to know why Kaepernick was acting in what was seemingly an unpatriotic manner. In a statement released to the press, Kaepernick expressed his sadness at the racial inequality that plagues the nation. His apparent disloyalty was in fact a protest, not against the country, or the anthem, but against the treatment of African Americans in the United States. Since his initial dissent, others across the league have joined him in solidarity against the oppression of African Americans, giving added exposure to the campaign.
The issue at the heart of the campaign stems from the racial discrimination and inequality that has plagued the nation since its inception. In the past year, protests in support of racial equality and against the repression and persecution of African Americans have been at the forefront of social narratives. Movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, a social protest that garnered great media attention across the country, have become international organisations that stand against discrimination based on race or ethnicity. In a study conducted by the University of California, Davis, professors found “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average.” Indeed, other evidence collated by an affiliated group of the Black Lives Matter organisation, Mapping Police Violence, found that fewer than one in three African Americans killed by police in 2016 were suspected of a violent crime or even armed. Yet, in spite of these statistics, and the widespread support for the campaigns, racially motivated riots, as seen in Charlottesville earlier this year, remain an active aspect of American life.
With deep divisions that come from the top down, the protest remains more closely tied to underlying social narratives than whether the players are representing the true American spirit.
With this background in mind, Kaepernick and the other players of NFL teams have moved to use their high profile exposure to draw these narratives to the attention of the nation. Far from a display of anti-American sentiment, Kaepernick was quick to make his position known, saying that he has ‘great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country… they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone.’ Yet he observed that this idea is not universally enforced when it comes to fighting for African Americans. The story behind his protest has gone viral across social media networks, with over 3 million twitter users trending the hashtag, #TakeAKnee. In a statement released by the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodall, the League expressed their position that players should stand for the national anthem, stating that it is what the ‘fans expect.’ The language of the statement has also come under scrutiny from supports of the campaign as they ask whether what is expected and what is can co-exist in such a scenario. With deep divisions that come from the top down, the protest remains more closely tied to underlying social narratives than whether the players are representing the true American spirit. Furthermore, the President’s remarks on the matter have only fuelled media attention. Throughout last month, the President has made various statements condemning the actions of the players, owners and the League itself, for their role in unpatriotic demonstrations that go against flag and country. His statements gained further media coverage with his crude use of language to describe the protesting players.
At the heart of the matter is a deeper discussion that is taking place across America. Commonly, critics of the movement are quick to condemn the actions of the Kaepernick and his followers, as disgracing both flag and the nation. However, with all players expressing most sincerely their respect for the flag and the anthem, particularly as it pertains to its military associations, kneeling during the anthem has moved well beyond such clear cut distinctions of American patriotism versus anti-American propaganda. What the campaign has been able to do is open up avenues for players and owners to converse about the issues raised by Kaepernick. In a meeting held on Tuesday, the NFL opened the floor to a conversation with players to try to work together to bring about positive change on the social issues highlighted, acknowledging that there is significant work to be done. The overall ruling at present remains, that players will not be forced to stand for the anthem, as it is their freedom to choose not to, but that it is most strongly encouraged as it remains an integral part of the game.