If you are a fan of the NFL, chances are that your world of quarterback statistics, defensive fumbles and touchdowns has been confounded with political rhetoric in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s criticisms of protests during the national anthem. Football is usually about barbecues, beer, family values, American pride. Well, get uncomfortable — that’s changed.
I guess the good news if you’re uncomfortable is that you’re not alone — a recent CNN poll states that 49 percent of Americans believe that NFL players, teams and coaches that kneel during the national anthem “are doing the wrong thing.”
While the players’ protests might be unpopular and contentious, the controversy and discomfort is an expected and necessary component of the fight for attention to Black mistreatment in the United States.
In case you have been living under a rock, a brief history of the controversy: In August 2016, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s activism gained national attention (and controversy) for sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem. Citing the unacceptable oppression of Black communities in the wake of deaths of individuals such as Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray, Kaepernick’s activism inspired kneeling, raised fists and dialogue among other NFL and professional athletes throughout the 2016 sports season.
Fast forward to 2017, and Kaepernick’s original intent has been undermined by debates on the meaning of patriotism. He remained unemployed during the NFL’s Week 1, only six players protested during the anthem, and the conversation of police violence had largely disappeared from football.
However, when President Trump unexpectedly disparaged new safety rules, crudely suggested firing players for exercising free speech and ridiculed football’s decreasing ratings, during Week 3, more than 200 NFL players, coaches and owners responded by not participating in the anthem, taking a knee during the anthem or releasing personal statements against the president’s words.
That brings us to today, now in Week 4, assessing the viability and future of the protest despite its unpopularity.
The viability of the protest has been undermined by anti-protest rhetoric under a pretense of patriotism. Reflecting damaging stereotypes of the danger of Black men, the players’ dissent is taken as a threat, rather than a form of patriotism.
The unpopularity reflected in President Trump and NFL fans is unsurprising. The fragile masculinity perpetuated in football’s demands of physicality and nationalism attracts a conservative, white male audience. While about 70 percent of NFL players are Black, around 77 percent of the NFL audience is white. This stark difference manifests itself in a power dynamic of safety and concern between the players and fans, prioritizing the comfort of the fans’ experiences over of the physical and emotional well-being of the players.
You’re allowed to take offense to perceived disrespect of the flag, but when your motivation against the protest is that ungrateful Black athletes should only stick to sports, the legacy of racial inequality that prioritizes white normalcy over minorities’ livelihoods invalidates opinions. By thrusting unpatriotic rhetoric on Black players, President Trump attacks the validity of their argument based not on counterfacts, but on racism, on not being American enough to deserve social justice.
The unpopularity of protests throughout American history is nothing new. Martin Luther King Jr.’s now-famous March on Washington polled unfavorably in 1963. Calls to demand change and moral equality will always move at an uncomfortable pace. It can take a long time for popular opinion to move the right way. Protests are inherently uncomfortable and challenge the status quo of a majority’s experience. That’s why Kaepernick and players’ kneeling, coming out of the locker room and engaging in dialogue is necessary — it forces fans to identify the foundations of normalcy and become uncomfortable with the results.
The key issue of the protests is not whether the NFL is too political, but whether the issue of police violence in America is an important enough issue to intersect the daily lives of white NFL viewers.
If you agree with the protests, support the players by tuning into Monday Night Football, foster open dialogue to explain the murder of Black individuals in America, and work for inclusive solutions. If you disagree with the protest, participate in respectful disagreement, and work to understand grievances despite methods. Chances are that if these actions make you feel uncomfortable, it’s OK. But now, it’s time to recognize the foundations for those feelings, act and make the change.
Alicia Sadowski is a Daily Cal Sports staffer. Contact her at [email protected]