As professional sport begins to ramp up, once again Americans are left to ask…is it appropriate for professional athletes to kneel in protest as the anthem plays prior to their sporting events?
I’ve thought long and hard about this issue. As a Black American I have many strong and complicated feelings about the justice conversation these days. I think there is a lot that the rest of America doesn’t really know about us; about what we face individually as Black people and as a community; the intimate details of our culture that often fly under the radar in mainstream conversations. I’ve often loathed how dismissive some people can be about the very real struggles against bigotry and racism that still exist for many Black people in this country. I want people to be more aware of what ails us. I want people to pay more attention to what we put forth as solutions. I want America to know that just because they don’t see certain racial issues in their own lives doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I applaud athletes and celebrities who use their platforms to raise awareness for important issues, for things they care about.
Every American has the right to protest, to dissent and yes, to disrespect the flag. Burning the flag is constitutionally protected and so is kneeling before the flag in protests. The question isn’t about the right to do it, but rather if it is right to do it. If it is right to do it depends on timing and location.
Supporters of kneeling will point out that guys like Colin Kaepernick are simply using their platform to bring awareness to a very serious issue. I would like to point out that guys like Kaepernick are not using their platform…they’re using their employer’s platform. The NFL (and subsequent professional leagues) has a huge public reach. So large, in fact, that it encompasses Americans from every walk of life, ethnicity and class. When Mr. or Mrs. Pro Athlete is at work, they are on their employer’s clock. It’s just that simple. Some of the customer base – the base they play for and the base who ultimately pays their exorbatent salaries – is supportive of the kneeling. Some of that base is not. There is no way to tell who is who, so what a mature professional adult does is simply leave their personal passions out of their customer service.
My husband works in corporate America. He’s in sales, and the number one rule in sales is when you’re courting customers you don’t talk politics and you don’t talk religion. Does he have very passionate feelings about politics and faith? Absolutely, particularly as a Black man. Does he use his employer’s time to protest for the things he feels passionately about? Absolutely not. Now, his meager Instagram following might not count as a very influential platform but it is what it is. That is where he can use whatever social influence he’s built up to advocate for what he feels is right. Mr. Pro Athlete’s platform is significantly more influential. In fact, his platform is only that big because of his employer’s platform. He can and should use the popularity he has built to advocate and protest. You just don’t do that kind of thing at work.
Besides the issue of what’s appropriate in the workplace, there is also the idea that the anthem, played over the images of our national flag, is not the place to be working out our social grievances, however important. Good or bad, ugly or beautiful, triumphant or shameful, everything that happens in this country happens under the banner of that anthem, under the blanket of that flag. Standing for the anthem doesn’t mean you think we live in a utopia, it means you recognize that for better or for worse, these are the borders of our nation and everything we wrestle with happens under the colors of this one flag.
When champion runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists in protest as they received their medals at the 1968 Olympics, many people were angered that they would use such a moment to lodge a political protest. I’m too far away from the event and the spirit of the times to have an objective point of view of the appropriateness at that time. In some ways some of 2020’s battles are the same, but in most ways they aren’t even close.
What I do think of when I see those images is that even though they were protesting a gross injustice in American life, they were not lowering themselves. They were elevating themselves…fists held high in declaration of their empowerment under the banner of the United States of America. They were not protesting the anthem. They could have chosen to simply not show up at all. Two empty spots on that podium would have spoken volumes. Instead, they took their rightful spots and demanded to be seen as worthy of those spots.
Kneeling before the flag feels antithetical to that spirit. Not to mention, kneeling often denotes a deference. If Mr. Pro Athlete is not deferring to the flag then just what or whom is he deferring to?
I worry we are making race an idol, and the kneeling doesn’t feel like protest, but worship.
*If you want to hear me speak at length about the issue, check out the latest edition of my podcast Just Listen To Yourself, available wherever you find your podcasts.