By Amber Hauw
The Nexus (Camino Del Sur, San Diego)
For families like mine, there’s a carefree atmosphere in the living room that is fostered by pointless shouting at the TV for a referee’s bad call or hearing the commentator yell increasingly louder as a wide receiver sprints closer to the end zone.
But to watch politics infect another form of entertainment, this time the NFL, is not fun. Hearing the president bash players, watching the vice president leave a game early, and simply witnessing players—the same players I see striking a pose after scoring a touchdown—make a statement against social injustice, is a rude awakening.
However, something needs to be clarified: the NFL protests are not protests of the flag or directed against American soldiers or against the current administration. They are not means of deepening the fissures that divide our country. The NFL protests exist to remind us of the true themes and freedoms the American flag represents.
When former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the National Anthem in his third preseason game last year, many viewers were appalled. Kaepernick’s protest made national headlines. It was not until last month that the nation became inflamed over the issue after President Trump publicly expressed disdain towards the NFL protests.
With football fields now serving as forums for political debate, the controversy over the protests stems from its message regarding the American flag. While Kaepernick initially sat on the bench during the National Anthem, he changed his method after meeting retired Green Beret and Seattle Seahawks long-snapper Nate Boyer.
“We talked to [Boyer] about how we can get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are,” Kaepernick said on SBNation.
Kaepernick and Boyer’s efforts in preventing misconceptions have been unsuccessful. Last month, President Trump addressed the protests in Alabama, stating that players need to stop “disrespecting our flag.” On Oct. 8, Vice President Mike Pence, who was the former governor of Indiana, left an Indianapolis Colts home game after seeing Kaepernick and some of his teammates take a knee during the anthem.
“I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” Pence tweeted.
For Pence, the NFL protests hit close to home even though he has not served in the military. According to USA Today, Pence has emotionally spoken about his father, who earned a Bronze Star in the Korean War. Pence’s son also currently serves in the Marines.
“Whenever [my dad] spoke of his time here in Korea, he spoke of the ones that didn’t come home,” Pence addressed to South Korean troops in April. “On this day, I think of him, gone 29 years now, but still enshrined in the hearts of everyone in our family.”
Pence’s sentiment is similarly felt by 49ers safety Eric Reid, who started taking a knee alongside Kaepernick shortly after Kaepernick started protesting.
“My mother served in the armed forces,” Reid said in USA Today. “I have the utmost respect for the military, anthem and the flag.”
To most people in the military or related to a family member in the military, the American flag means a great deal. My dad is an Army veteran who served in the Iraq War for two years, 2004 and 2010. In the military, the flag is worn as a badge of honor. All soldiers in the Army wear a patch of the American flag on their right arm, directly above their combat badge. People like my dad have fought and continue to fight to protect Kaepernick and his fellow teammates’ rights and to preserve their safety.
The NFL protests can feel like a slap in the face to soldiers, veterans, and their families. However, the purpose of the protests seems to have gotten lost in the debate of whether it is acceptable to kneel during the anthem, even though the gesture of taking a knee is supposed to signify respect. When a soldier visits a fallen soldier’s grave, he or she takes a knee. In any high school football game, players usually take a knee when another player gets severely injured, regardless of whose team that player is on.
These protests are meant not to disrespect the flag or its values, but rather to turn the rest of the nation’s attention to the Black Lives Matter Movement. In an editorial to The New York Times, Reid expressed why he decided to join the peaceful protest with Kaepernick.
“In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police,” Reid said. “The posts on social media deeply disturbed me, but one, in particular, brought me to tears: the killing of Alton Sterling in my hometown Baton Rouge, La. I felt furious, hurt and hopeless. I wanted to do something but didn’t know what or how to do it. All I knew for sure is that I wanted it to be as respectful as possible.”
Players are speaking for black Americans, who have the highest poverty rate, 24.7 percent, among racial-ethnic groups in America. Despite this, many Americans question if these players have the right to use the NFL as a platform, considering the generous annual salaries they receive. Why don’t players go to the cities that are predominantly black, and make a direct impact?
In June, Kaepernick’s foundation donated $700,000 of the $1 million Kaepernick pledged to donate to 24 charities, many of which fight against poverty and social injustice, such as American Friends Service Committee and Assata’s Daughters.
The military protects all Americans and their freedoms, but how can soldiers completely protect the nation and its citizens’ rights when the second largest fraction (the largest being white Americans) of the nation doesn’t have the same freedoms and opportunities as others?
This is why NFL players take a knee in the presence of the flag—not to condemn it or the people who risk their lives for it, but to bring to light that while equality is one of the paramount values of the American flag, it is not fully honored in our society.
“We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture,” Reid said in the Times. “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
These peaceful protests should not prompt NFL team owners to “fire” their employees as President Trump said. This notion that it is acceptable to make a swift move, forget, and ignore is indeed the tragedy Reid noticed. If the flag means as much as the president and vice president emphasized, enforcing the values it symbolizes should be a priority.
Featured Image: Geoff Livingston