With the start of the NFL season just around the corner, fans are already gearing up for big games and looking forward to cheering on their favorite football teams. But amidst the excitement of the sports season, something else has emerged as a prominent issue: the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its influence on the national anthem protests during the pre-game ritual in September.
Since September 16, a number of NFL players have either kneeled or sat in protest during the playing of the national anthem, with the most prominent examples including San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Los Angeles Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree. The demonstrations were initially organized in response to the shooting death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in late May, but have continued to draw attention as a reaction to President Donald Trump’s comments denouncing the protests and equating them with disrespect for the American flag. (The president himself has been a prominent critic of the NFL in the past, calling for the firing of any NFL players who don’t stand for the national anthem.)
While most fans and observers may have assumed that the NFL supported the players’ right to engage in the protests, a number of comments made by NFL executives and other stakeholders in the wake of the demonstrations have called that assumption into question. (Note: This article focuses on the NFL’s position on the protests; comments made by individual players and other sports leagues are addressed in the body of the article.)
The NFL’s Position On The Protests
On May 31, Eric Weddle, who was formerly a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers and currently serves as an analyst for the NFL Network, tweeted a rather surprising message in response to the initial wave of national anthem protests in the NFL: “Stand for the Anthem.”
Weddle’s message was hardly unique, with a number of other former players and current coaches and executives calling on fans to show support for their respective teams and the American flag by standing for the anthem. Weddle’s comments drew a lot of attention and encouraged other former players to follow suit.
Despite that initial burst of support, things really have not changed that much. Just last week, the Dallas Cowboys were featured in a rather curious national newspaper article that questioned the motives behind the team’s ‘America’s Team’ slogan and asked whether or not the team actually stood for the national anthem.
While a number of teams have adapted by standing during the anthem and some have even engaged in friendly competitions to see who can stand for the loudest, the majority of the league chooses to sit during the song. Some teams have gone as far as to join hands during ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ — a rather unique take on things given the circumstances.
What Has The NFL’s Position Changed?
On September 30, three days before the scheduled start of the NFL season, the league issued a revised statement on its position regarding the national anthem protests. The statement, which was released on the NFL’s website, acknowledged that the ‘Take a Knee’ campaign has raised awareness of important issues but argued that those issues should not be used as an excuse for disrespecting the American flag or the military.
The statement asserted that “the issue of whether or not to kneel during the national anthem is a matter of personal conscience for each individual,” and that “[players] should look to their own community and understand the hurt that their protest may cause.” It continued: “The league and our players have a responsibility to promote and respect an environment of unity, honor and dignity. We hope that this statement will assist our players as they consider their personal responsibility in promoting these values.”
The revision to the NFL’s statement offered no explanation for why it took the organization three days to issue an official position on the protests. (The NFL did not respond to a request for comment regarding that matter).
It’s difficult to say what is motivating the NFL’s shift in position. Some have suggested that the league is simply seeking to avoid controversy and protect its own bottom line. (It’s also worth noting that the NFL has taken a tough stance on numerous issues over the years, including women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the treatment of immigrants, so the organization is certainly not exempt from taking dramatic positions when it comes to matters of social justice.)
The statement also came just a few days after a poll was released that showed that 83% of NFL fans would be “disappointed” or “angry” if their team did not kneel during the national anthem.
“We support our players’ right to peaceful protesting and recognize the important role that sport has in bringing people together,” he [Mark Murphy, the NFL’s senior vice president of communications] said in a statement. “However, we strongly believe that protests should not be directed at the national anthem or American flag but rather focused on finding peaceful solutions to social and economic injustices.”
Perhaps most significantly, the statement was the first time that an NFL executive had expressed support for Colin Kaepernick and the other kneeling players. (It should be noted that the statement was not signed by the commissioner of the NFL; the league’s senior VP of communications took that on behalf of the organization.)
The NFL And The American Flag: What Does That Mean?
What is most striking about the NFL’s recent statement on the national anthem protests is not what it said — which is largely consistent with the initial reaction of many fans and observers — but rather what it did not say: namely, that it supports the right of NFL players to protest racism and police brutality. Instead, the statement argued that the protests were “not about the national anthem or the American flag” but rather “the mistreatment of African Americans.”
That position is problematic for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it takes the position that racism and police brutality are the true causes of the protests, rather than the systematic inequities that drive them. (Similarly, the statement asserts that the players’ “protest [is] not against our country, but against the blatant inequalities that exist in our country.”) It also ignores the reality that many of the protesters are indeed doing so out of a sense of patriotism and deep concern for the well-being of African Americans, not in spite of their American citizenship.
Furthermore, the statement minimizes the role that the NFL has played in enabling and encouraging police brutality and systemic racism. (For example, while the protests began as a reaction to the killing of George Floyd, the league’s cheerleaders have actually used their platform to promote police brutality — including taunting fans who try to #BLM, or Black Lives Matter — and celebrate the ‘thin blue line’ that protects them from harm.)
NFL fans should be offended by the suggestion that their beloved football league does not have a strong connection to issues of racial justice. After all, 82% of NFL fans support the protesters’ right to demonstrate, according to a recent poll, and many of them are likely to be angry or even “disappointed” if their team does not take a knee during the anthem. (The poll also showed that 75% of fans said they would be “more respectful” of the flag and anthem if their team started kneeling during the national anthem.)
It is high time for the NFL to stop hiding behind the façade of patriotism and recognize that its continued success is inextricably linked to the ongoing struggles of people of color against structural and institutional racism. As Audre Lorde said, “Casting aside the brittle phrases of patriotism and nationalism, what is called for is a politics of commitment, a reaching out of love to those whose lives may be touched by racial prejudice.”
The NFL’s position on the protests also fails to appreciate the importance of solidarity among people of color in the struggle against white supremacy. It is time for the league to step up and take a real stand for social justice — or, at least, to stop denying that it has any connection to those issues.
That, however, is likely to be an increasingly unpopular stance among fans and observers. (A recent poll showed that 69% of respondents believe that the protests should be “open to athletes of all races,” while just 17% think they should be “restricted to black athletes.”) But unless and until the NFL decides to take a stand against white supremacy, fans have every right to be angry.