Football is supposed to be a safe haven. It’s supposed to be a sacred place where people can go to forget about all the problems from the world, big or small. People can gather together under the unity of a common love for the game of football, under the banner of the same team, and block out everything else. But has that ever truly been possible?
Football and Politics Will Never Be Separable
Our political climate is a huge issue in America today. Tensions are higher than they have been in a long time. Small cultural divisions have become amplified and exposed, and are spilling over into every aspect of every person’s life. Sports and football are no exception.
As much as we want to deny it however, politics and football have never, and will never be, inseparable. Players kneeling during the National Anthem is the latest issue to remind us of this fact.
The sooner we all accept this uncomfortable truth the sooner we can move forward. Then we can stop running away from whatever side opposes our own views and tackle these issues together, as a united people. Like football, the only way to actually progress is as a team.
And we’re all on the same team in the United States of America.
But Sports Can Unite Us
While we can never completely eliminate the crossover of politics into the sports world, we can use it to put some of our differences aside. The sports world is a diverse world, full of people who hold allegiances to different political parties. It’s full of people from each and every socioeconomic status. Dispersed throughout the stands of a game, are people of every age, gender and ethnicity.
When we’re watching sports, the only arguments we usually have are why one person’s team is better than the another’s. These are the debates in sports. Sports have united our people more often than it has divided us.
So when did football turn into a brutal battle of ideologies? When did these differences that we were able to set aside for so long get to be too much to ignore? That might just be the thing. Maybe we’ve been too quick to deny the issues were there in the first place, and they’ve finally boiled over.
But now that we agree that they exist, we can come together as a team and address the root of these polarizing issues.
Where it All Began
It all started when Colin Kaepernick gained national attention for sitting during the National Anthem. It was over a year ago, on Aug. 26th, 2016 for the San Francisco 49ers’ third preseason game. In reality he actually began sitting during their first preseason game, but no one noticed.
If we really want to dig deep, protests in sports go way further back than that. In 1968, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists above their head after they won the bronze and gold medal in the 200 meter dash of the Olympic games in Mexico. They too were protesting the discrimination against blacks in America. They were awarded Olympic medals as Americans, not Black Americans. Both wanted to bridge that gap in the treatment of all American people.
After that preseason game, Kaepernick claimed he sat to raise attention for the issues of police brutality against people of color. Two days later, he gave more details. He claimed that he wasn’t protesting for himself, but people who had no voice. He wanted to use his status as a public figure to speak for those without a platform. His purpose is the same as Olympians Smith and Carlos.
He also emphasized that he meant no disrespect to those who served our country. He commended them for fighting bravely for our rights and freedoms, but he also claimed that these rights that they fight for are being withheld from certain people. He said even those in the military are “treated unjustly by the country they fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for.”
More Recent Protests
About two years before Kaepernick began his protests, five players of the St. Louis Rams came out to the field with their hands raised above their heads. This was in reaction to an incident in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown, a Black male, was shot by a law enforcement officer. The Rams players, and other supporters of their cause claimed that Brown had his hands up and was surrendering to police when he was shot.
Like the Rams, Kaepernick saw a cause that he felt he had a responsibility to fight for. Just about a month before Kaepernick’s protest gained national attention, the country was rocked by two incidents of police shootings that were caught on camera and viewed by millions. These men were Philando Castille and Alton Sterling.
Although both of these men had guns in their possession, witnesses say that neither of these men showed any threat of drawing or firing at the police officers who shot them. Castille possessed a concealed weapon permit. We do not get a clear picture of it, but he seemed to spook the officer into shooting him by revealing he had a weapon on him. Sterling was already subdued on the ground by two officers before he was shot in the chest when they found out he also had a firearm on him.
Some saw this as the final straw in a string of many incidents of white officers being caught on camera shooting blacks unnecessarily. The issue was so out in the open that no one could ignore it any longer. Not even the sports world. Not even the players, who despite playing on different teams, are Americans at their core.
Kaepernick is just latest American athlete to stand to use his status to stand up for a social issue.
Understanding How It Evolved
Protests aren’t done to please people. If their purposes are understood by everyone, there would be no reason to protest in the first place. If they don’t make people uncomfortable, there will be no motivation to act. When Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench of his team’s sidelines, he angered a lot of people.
But it wasn’t because they disagreed with his overall purpose. Many who criticized Kaepernick would readily agree that there is an issue in this country with how minorities are treated by law enforcement. Their issue came in the form of his protest.
The National Anthem and saluting our flag is an important part of showing our patriotism, and love of being an American. It is especially dear for those in the military, as the flag is the most powerful symbol of the freedoms that our great troops fight for.
To stand at attention and place our hand over our hearts when the lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner” are sung also pays respect to the men and women who fight to maintain those freedoms, and those who gave their life on foreign soil to ensure our safety at home.
Francis Scott Key wrote our National Anthem as tribute to our American troops. His great-great-great granddaughter, Carole Isham, is one who believes that Kaepernick’s method is not appropriate to his cause, because it dishonors those who fought for his very freedom.
Attempting an Understanding
Many NFL players would even echo this sentiment. Drew Brees, Super Bowl winning quarterback for the New Orleans Saints says that he supports Kaepernick’s cause, but “wholeheartedly disagrees with his method,” adding “it’s an oxymoron that you’re sitting down, disrespecting that flag that has given you the freedom to speak out.”
Kaepernick reiterated that he meant no disrespect to our troops. His protest had nothing to do with the military. He never considered how his refusal to participate in the National Anthem might affect people who view it differently from himself. And he should have. He admitted this, and changed his strategy.
After speaking with Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick was able to see the Anthem in a different light. He saw that even though he meant no disrespect to the anthem, perhaps he was inadvertently showing it.
While he did not give up his method of protest completely, he was willing to listen. Kaepernick decided that instead of shunning the National Anthem completely, he would kneel, out of respect for those who fight for his freedom, for his right to even protest.
And that’s what being an American is all about. It’s about having the freedom to protest. It’s also about listening to each other’s values and coming to a compromise like Kaepernick did.
The Conundrum of Protesting as an Athlete
It seems like athletes just can’t win. When they stay silent on social issues, they are criticized for not using their unique platforms to reach the masses and incite positive changes. On the other hand, when they speak up, they are often immediately scoffed at, with the familiar phrase of “stick to sports” screamed all around them.
NFL players are in such a unique situation. They are part of a select few people in the entire world who are able to make millions of dollars a year by playing a game. However, it is easy to forget how they got there. It is through a lifelong dedication of almost 100% of their waking hours. It is through blocking out the world around them to put their entire minds and bodies into this game.
And even still, most of them don’t make it to the NFL. Of the tiny percentage that do, even fewer last very long. The average length of an NFL player’s career is 3.3 years. Those who stay in the longest get by not just on talent, but a tireless work ethic that has to outperform all of the other elite athletes around them. They stay by blocking out the world around them to push their minds and bodies to the brink.
Between the early morning workout sessions and late night film sessions, the thought undoubtedly invades their minds that they’re just one injury away from losing it all. They’re just one slip up in practice from a younger guy taking their spot. The team is just one loss away from a regime change that could alter each individual’s value to the organization.
A football player’s life is the ultimate embodiment survival of the fittest. A constant, violent competition in a free market. The ultimate American Sport.
So then why speak out?
Why waste away valuable seconds of their precious little time in the NFL to stick their foot into politics? Why do something that might cause a divide with their teammates in the ultimate team game?
Because they feel there is no choice. Because they feel they have a responsibility as public figures. Because kneeling during the national anthem is the one thing that is able to make enough of a statement, yet not endanger their livelihood in a career that could be over tomorrow.
Sure they could do it when they’re not in uniform, but it wouldn’t have the same impact. It wouldn’t be seen by millions of people on their nationally televised games. It wouldn’t be seen by the tens of thousands of people who came to the game to see them play.
They could also sit out games. That would make a real statement. They could choose to never play a game again until there is justice for their cause. But then their fight is in vain. Then they waste away the precious little time they are gifted in the NFL. Their undying focus and dedication that they have given for their entire lives was for nothing.
When that happens they lose their voice, and they become a nameless part of the very souls they fight for. That’s why kneeling during the National Anthem is the only option.
Fighting for those with less opportunities than oneself is about as American as it gets.
Finding a Common Ground
This issue has gone much farther than just protesting how blacks are treated by law enforcement. It blown up into something bigger than just kneeling during the National Anthem.
After President Trump spoke out, using loaded language to encourage those who kneel during the National Anthem to be fired from the NFL, it became an issue of Freedom of Speech. It became an issue of players protecting their teammates.
This is why the entire NFL joined in. There are 32 teams in the NFL, but overall every player, and member of each organization is part of the overall team of the National Football League. When one of their teammates is attacked, they will all come to their defense.
For most players, the NFL is the most important team they will ever be a part of. It prompted who some really weren’t part of the original cause to join in with their teammates for solidarity. Last week, some kneeled, some locked arms, and some didn’t come out of the locker room for the Anthem at all.
This league-wide demonstration was about showing that however each player decided to express their reaction to an issue that was getting bigger and bigger each week, was accepted. It’s what makes us Americans. It’s mixing football and politics and so much more, and it’s not be pretty. It may not be fun or comfortable, but it’s ok.
A Slippery Slope
To many, these acts were a beautiful display of a how an act that was once mostly looked down upon in the NFL, was now embraced almost totally. For some though, like Pittsburg Steelers player Alejandro Villanuevo, they now became the outcasts, and that is not okay. This is where protesting can be tricky and divide us unnecessarily.
The Pittsburg Steelers decided that they were not going to come out of the locker room at all during the National Anthem. Well, all except one teammate, Villanuevo. He is a former Army Ranger, and puts that team above even his current NFL club. He holds the National Anthem very dear to his heart. Despite those views, after the game said he was “embarrassed” by standing alone outside the locker room during the anthem. He added he felt like he “threw [his] teammates under the bus,”
Here is how a protest gets sticky, and why many feel it is better to leave them off the field. Still, we can all learn from this weekend. We can use this historic event in football to gain a better understanding of each other’s differences as American people.
Unity through Differences
We will never all agree on something. However, these disagreements, when addressed in a healthy manner make us the great country that we are. We aren’t perfect, and neither are sports or these protests. But when we all come together to at least try to hear each other’s grievances out, that is when true progress can be made.
So let’s keep watching the great game of football together. Let’s not allow our current political climate to make us forget that we have always had different ideologies. Nevertheless, we have been able to set aside and enjoy the game for so long. Let’s also not pretend that we do not have different views, and be open to listening to each other when it’s necessary.
We all root for different teams, are born into separate ethnicities, and align ourselves with various political parties, but at the end of the day, we’re all part of the same nation: The United States of America. Realize that we’ve all set these views aside to watch a great game.
We all have a right to our own separate views, and that right to be different is what brings us all together.