Hurricanes, shootings, and… kneeling? Oh my? Frankly, I find it very difficult to focus opinionated energy on kneeling NFL players as egregiously horrific events continue to transpire in every corner of the globe. I think, however, that our society has a propensity for moving far too quickly from one sensationalist headline to the next; we quickly disregard each event, no matter how devastating, as the next most exciting news story hits the presses. The result? We semi-formulate solutions to each arising problem, yet we abandon these burgeoning ideas, banishing them to irrelevance as soon as we check the news the next day. The heavy meaning behind the controversial NFL protests is a topic that got cast aside too soon – it is important that we address it before it becomes wholly eclipsed.
In recent football games, several NFL teams have become involved in a nationwide, multifaceted battle based on players’ choices to protest racial and social injustice. Protests have typically been in the form of kneeling while the national anthem plays at each football game, with some teams electing to avoid the issue entirely and remain in the locker room during the anthem. Accompanying these protests is a slew of Tweets from President Trump who vehemently condemns NFL players who have chosen to protest.
Prior to elaborating on my plethora of opinions about this situation, the first item I would like to place on the table is something that is too often sacrificed in the name of shock value: a compilation of facts. When debating this issue, many people cite the existence of a stipulation in the NFL rulebook dictating that players are required to stand during the national anthem. In the official NFL rulebook, there is no such regulation. However, an NFL spokesperson has come forward with information that in a manual given to NFL employees, there exists a section delineating pre-game procedures that dictates that players “should stand at attention” during the anthem. This document is not public, so it is yet to be corroborated.
Additionally, in terms of the legality of any protest whatsoever, Rule 5, Article 8, of the publicized NFL rulebook states, “players are prohibited from wearing, displaying, or otherwise conveying personal messages either in writing or illustration, unless such message has been approved in advance by the League office…The League will not grant permission for any club or player to wear, display, or otherwise convey messages, through…items affixed to game uniforms or equipment, which relate to political activities or causes, or other non-football events.” Now that we are somewhat informed, let us delve into this convoluted dilemma.
Let’s begin with a discussion of Constitutional legality. Not tastefulness, not peace, but the validity of the actions of all parties involved. According to the public NFL rulebook and the published statements by the NFL regarding the issues, the players who elected to take a knee during the anthem were not violating any codes of conduct – they did not affix any protest paraphernalia to their uniforms, speak, or illustrate their protest – nor were they breaking any laws. Their right to freedom of expression holds steady in this debate; it is their prerogative to kneel during the anthem, just as it is Donald Trump’s prerogative (gasp!) to publicly state his opinions of their protest. Was it polite, prudent, or at all in good taste for President Trump to refer to the kneeling players as “sons of bitches?” The overwhelming answer is an emphatic NO. Was it his legal right? Yes, just as legal as any other protest. However, his reaction causes this exchange to appear as though the leader of the free world feels intimidated enough by professional athletes to suggest that they should be fired for exercising their constitutional right to protest – a right that he himself holds on the highest pedestal.
A popular source of controversy relates to whether or not this protest is disrespectful to American war veterans. Considering that the kneeling players are using the national anthem and the US flag as a vehicle for their protest, it is understandable that it may be construed as an anti-patriotic sentiment. Those who claim that this protest is a flippant action towards veterans often say that players should honor those who fight for their freedom. Indeed, war veterans fought for American freedoms – liberties that include freedom to protest. Our troops fight to keep America a global leader of freedom and opportunity; in reality, to shut down this legal protest is to contradict the very freedom for which our troops give their lives.
The most disturbing part of this situation is that in all the discourse surrounding kneeling and Twitter, we have glazed over the issues that these NFL players are protesting. We have neglected to listen; instead, we condemn. An alternative to wasting such copious amounts of time and energy excoriating a simple, peaceful protest would be allowing every party involved to express their opinions equally. Let the players kneel, let Trump pontificate, and evaluate the matters of racial protest that are truly at hand instead of focusing on the ways in which these matters are discussed.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. took a knee in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to protest racial voting inequality, the same action taken by NFL players in 2017, his head was bowed in prayer. While African Americans face death at the hands of injustice, Americans flee their storm-ravaged homes, and parents mourn the massacre of their children in Las Vegas, maybe our heads should be, too.
(Sources: The Guardian, NBC Sports, Snopes, Mass Live, Washington Post)