When I first met my in-laws, everyone was having a lively discussion about football rivalries. Worried that I was being left out, my future mother-in-law said, “I’m sorry, Kimmie. What football team do you hate?” My response? “I hate football, Patti.” Honestly, there’s nothing that interests me less than this particular national pastime. However, when National Football League players are criticized for exercising their First Amendment rights, and when critics invoke the sacrifices of people like my soldier husband, you better believe I’m interested.
Let’s take a look at the history of the #TakeAKnee movement. At the beginning of the 2016 NFL season, then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the “Star Spangled Banner,” explaining that he refused to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” Many athletes across many different sports have knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick, but his career couldn’t take the backlash and this year, he finds himself without a team. Over the weekend, President Trump used profanity and bullying language to encourage NFL owners to fire players who knelt for the national anthem. In an unprecedented show of unity, entire teams refused to come out of the locker room, knelt en masse, and linked arms in protest.
If your newsfeed is anything like mine, it was full of articles, memes, and posts either praising or condemning the actions of teams and individual players. The overarching argument of the latter is that it was disrespectful of the flag and all those who have served and died under it. As a proud military spouse, let me just say that it doesn’t bother me a whit that NFL players are kneeling during the anthem. Because I know it’s not about the flag. These athletes are protesting police brutality, injustice, systemic racism, and more recently, a president who would restrict their constitutional right to do so.
It really bothers me to have people invoke “our soldiers” as a reason for their anger because they’re not your soldiers. Soldiers are individuals; they don’t belong to anyone and their opinions are as unique as they are. For every veteran who is offended by players who sit out during the anthem, there is one who supports their decision. Take a look at #VetsforKaepernick, and you’ll see that countless veterans not only took a knee, but admonished critics for exploiting them in order to silence Black Americans. Even service members who don’t agree with players’ choices agree that they don’t get to pick and choose the rights they fight for.
The idea that protest is un-American is patently untrue. What exactly would you call the Boston Tea Party if not protest? Peaceful protest was a hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement. I’m so tired of white folks who call up Martin Luther King, Jr. as someone who “did it right.” They seem to forget that MLK was a revolutionary who was jailed and assassinated for what he believed in. Do it some other way, they say, but don’t disrespect the flag. However, like Tomi Lahren confronted by Trevor Noah, these same people are unable to produce an “acceptable” way for people of color to protest.
Another argument I’ve seen is that politics don’t belong in sports. First and foremost, I fail to see how social justice is “political.” Furthermore, there’s a long history of athletes protesting social issues, from Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to Muhammad Ali’s refusal to enlist in the Vietnam War. One of the reasons the Civil Rights Movement was successful was that it was televised, so if a player wants to draw attention to injustice, why not take advantage of the platform they’ve been given? Fans are part of the same culture that makes athletes superstars, so if they have a problem with them using it for activism, they have only themselves to blame.
You want to talk about the flag code? Let’s talk about the flag code. The United States Flag Code is a set of advisory rules; essentially, it’s etiquette. It’s not enforced, and if you look at countries where patriotism is compulsory, they’re not exactly bastions of freedom. I’m bothered that it is only this particular violation that seems to upset people. I don’t see anyone complaining about people wearing American flag leggings or failing to stand at a parade when the flag goes by (I know this because my family is always the only one who stands, in even small-town America on the Fourth of July). If it is this particular protest by mostly Black players that bothers you, it may say more about you than it does about them, and I invite you to sit with that discomfort. And if the only thing you’ve done for veterans is be righteously indignant on their behalf, I also invite you to examine the reason you’re really upset.
If you want to #BoycottNFL and stop buying jerseys, go for it. You have as much a right to protest as the players (you’d do well to remember that), but I’ll thank you kindly to leave my husband’s service out of it.