Putting your hand over your heart, standing and listening to the National Anthem is a pre-game tradition in all professional sports, for fans and players alike. Recently, however, this age-old ritual came under fire when an NFL player opted to buck the tradition and protest. The ensuing brouhaha spread to other players, effectively drew the ire of the President and in so doing, divided the nation.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” President Trump said seemingly out of nowhere during a September 22nd political rally in Alabama, igniting a nationwide firestorm.
The next morning President Trump doubled down on his patriotic rhetoric, angrily tweeting that because Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry intended to skip the traditional White House visit by the NBA champs, the invitation was rescinded. This further inflamed the anti-Trump sentiment, particularly among professional athletes, who rushed to Curry’s defense. The division was deep – particularly among African American athletes – setting the stage for the next day’s NFL games.
With all eyes watching, many NFL players knelt and some locked arms in unison, while other teams refused to take the field at all for the anthem. In response, Trump took to his usual outlet of Twitter to share his dismay, even urging fans to boycott the NFL. This only further fanned the flames, spurring more and more players to protest. Whether to stand for the national anthem or protest became the hot button movement du jour.
This, of course, was not the first time the national anthem was the centerpiece of a player protest. In an August, 2016 pre-season game, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick opted to kneel during the anthem to protest what he deemed were wrongdoings against African Americans and other minorities in the United States. He was particularly incensed by what he viewed was social inequality by how police treated minorities. Kaepernick was using his platform as a professional athlete to take a stand for civil rights.
While teammates eventually joined his cause, Kaepernick was publicly excoriated as being anti-American. After the season, the quarterback opted out of his contract with the 49ers and despite an impressive on-field resume, has still not been signed by another NFL team. Many speculate Kaepernick’s controversial activism has cost him a job.
Despite not being on a team, however, Kaepernick’s anthem protests continue to resonate.
He started a controversy a year ago and participation has grown exponentially. What is ambiguous is if players are protesting racial injustice like Kaepernick first intended or simply protesting the President.
On October 8, in what critics called a publicity stunt, Vice President Pence walked out of an Indianapolis Colts game when players knelt during the national anthem. Trump immediately tweeted his support. The controversy showed no signs of slowing down.
Two days later, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to all teams urging players to stand during the anthem, but admitted he understood they were within their right to protest. Goodell wrote, “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.”
Time will tell how long NFL players chose to kneel or otherwise protest, and if so, what if anything will come of it.