One In Seven NFL Players Protested Yesterday. Let's Discuss The Arguments Against Them

Not to pick a side, but simply to understand.

No fewer than 172 NFL players declined to stand during the national anthem yesterday. And at least 735 more either chained arms with their kneeling/sitting brothers or else stayed in their locker rooms.

That represents over 70 percent of the players who suited up.

And it wasn’t just black athletes. White teammates joined them this time.

And it wasn’t just players. Twenty-nine of the 32 ownership groups put out statements soundly rejecting Trump’s suggestion of firing the protesters. Many of them even joined their players on the field in solidarity.

(For more on the numbers, see this roundup.)

Thousands of offended fans have since spoken out against these actions ― all of whom seem to be pulling from the same general set of concerns.

In the interest of promoting thoughtful dialogue, I want to examine the top six arguments in detail.

#1: “This isn’t the right time or place.”

Well, this line of thought suggests an obvious question: if the grievances are real, when and where should the protests happen?

The historical problem is that the inequality of pain and urgency invariably leads those in comfort to answer “tomorrow” and “somewhere else” on repeat until the suffering parties tire of asking.

To quote Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

His concern was well-founded. His peaceful sit-ins were met with dogs, clubs, and fire-hoses. And most white moderates watched with disfigured sympathy, unwilling to do much else than mutter about it being “such a shame that these poor fellows can’t see the wisdom of waiting for time to free them”.

That this hoped-for progress might be predicated on their own present courage and conviction never seemed to have occurred to most.

Protests arise when those hungry for justice are left unfed for too long — normal channels no longer serving their needs. Their only remaining remedy is to ask louder.

To answer a starving man’s pleas with “please take your pain elsewhere” or “very well, but just not today” is to amplify both their volume and our own shame.

#2: “They’re disrespecting the armed forces.”

Are they? Did the player who started all this ever say anything negative about America’s protectors?

Not only did he never do such a thing, he actually openly cheered for the military personnel present on the same night that his anthem protest first caught the national eye.

To quote his direct response when a connection was first suggested:

“I realize that men and women of the military go out and sacrifice their lives and put themselves in harm’s way for my freedom of speech — and my freedoms in this country and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee — so I have the utmost respect for them.”

He then went on to sympathize with the unjust treatment of returning soldiers and how we need to do better for them (this will be important in a bit). There was nothing in his interviews, then or after, that could reasonably be interpreted as anything other than full-hearted gratitude and respect.

So why were they offended? Well, the thing is, they really weren’t. The overwhelming majority of veterans and active service members who’ve spoken up have been supportive. (We’re talking in the thousands. See examples here, here, here, and here.)

In fact, it’s much harder to find statements of concern from within that community. While I unearthed a handful of interviews that quoted one or two offended veterans (some of whom had clearly never read or heard Kaepernick’s actual comments), the group letters and petitions were all on his behalf.

So, if not from them, where did so many civilians get this curious idea?

Rather than point fingers, I’ll leave that question to the reader. (As a hint, consider which parties have a healthy profit incentive to manufacture this type of outrage.)

#3: “The anthem should be a unifying force.”

This argument almost makes sense until you read the poem that the anthem lyrics are taken from.

The end of the third verse is a doozy:

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave // From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, // And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave // O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

How would you feel if those dead slaves being contemptuously mocked were your forefathers? How would you feel if many of your still-living parents and grandparents had never enjoyed the essential dignity of being able to attend a good school, purchase a house, or cast a ballot — not because of any defect of their character, but simply because they shared a skin color with those dead slaves?

Unity isn’t necessarily everyone else coming around to share our opinions. Sometimes we’re the ones who have to move, because sometimes we’re the ones in the wrong.

I know this from experience. I’m a straight white man from a conservative, blue-collar home. I once held to arguments like these. But the evidence gradually compelled me to see it a different way, which is why I’m speaking up now.

(To be clear, I’m not asking anyone to believe me ― only for readers to honestly and fairly question the evidence for themselves.)

#4: “Politics and sports shouldn’t mix.”

I get this. I feel this. We all face stress in our daily lives. There’s certainly more than enough political friction of late. Sometimes we just need the escape that entertainment provides.

Thing is, that’s not what sports are. The politics are already there, even if we don’t see them.

  • Have you wondered why there are zero openly gay men in any of the four major sports?
  • Have you wondered why none of those sports have female head coaches or lead commentators?
  • Have you wondered why 75 percent of NFL coaches are white, along with 78 percent of general managers and all but one owner — despite 70 percent of NFL players being black?

These realities are dictated by the political convictions of those who run our major cultural institutions. When we turn on a game, we’re witnessing the show they’ve constructed for us.

All these protests are doing is shining on light on the world as it already is. They’re aren’t creating tension. They’re just exposing it.

Now, sure, it’s natural to tire of looking at all this (even champions of the cause need breaks), but a few gentlemen directly affected by these realities taking a knee for 90 seconds in a three hour game isn’t exactly an undue burden. If we object to that, chances are that our real objections lie elsewhere.

#5: “The protests may be peaceful, but they incite real violence.”

Colin Kaepernick was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, true. This is common knowledge. And, yes, a slim minority of their overwhelmingly peaceful protests have featured violent clashes.

But does it stand then that this violence is therefore their fault?

To quote Dr. King again:

“You assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? [...] We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”

It’s a difficult thing to fault a man for pursuing the justice that we’ve denied him, and stranger yet to suggest that confronting him with a gun and riot shield is likely to help anything.

(One might also note that the two shootings often associated with BLM ― those of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge — were not committed by BLM members, but by military veterans with severe mental health problems, a group that Kaepernick has been trying to raise support for.)

If these protesters are right in what the data says (which I’ve seen no serious attempts to deny), then black people are routinely treated antagonistically by law enforcement without cause.

There’s a simple way to handle this sort of thing: review the concerns in good faith; where they prove true, make things right; where they prove misguided, be humble and carry dialogue to the next point.

Anything else is just making the problem worse.

If violence is a product of tension, then our pushback is half the equation. If we listen instead, we might just find that both halves become manageable.

P.S. ― Neither Kaepernick nor anyone in Black Lives Matter has ever argued that only black people suffer from police brutality or other injustices. Some white readers might have their own weighty concerns that all need to hear. No one is saying we have to pick between them.

#6: “Ok, fine, but Kaepernick hates America.”

This argument is attractive because it contains no content that anyone can effectively argue against — it’s a wondrously vague claim that one can lob like a grenade in the absence of anything more meaningful.

But, whatever love for country might look like, blind patriotism can’t be it.

There was a popular saying in the days when America was freshly emerging from the crucible of nationhood: “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

In context, this simply means that rights need to be pursued and upheld with constant energy against those who diligently seek to undermine them, fueled as they are by unrelenting greed.

In the old-world way of seeing it, the chief duty of a good citizen was to “provoke one another to good works”.

Well, what sort of works is Mr. Kaepernick trying to provoke us toward? In a nutshell, he wants those with power to be more attentive to the needs of those with less. And he wants this to happen peaceably.

I find difficulty in imagining what someone could object to in this idea — especially coming from the mouth of a man who’s on course to give a million dollars of his own money to strengthen his point?

Go ahead: look through the list of the causes he’s supporting. Do they strike you as the handiwork of someone trying to undermine the civic health of America?

Or is the argument against him really a smokescreen for something else?

Closing Thoughts:

I’ll bring us home with the ever-challenging words from “The American President”:

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”

(The rest of the speech is worth a watch — some very relevant bits to our present circumstances.)

P.S. - If you happen upon any commentators who respond to all this with “well, he’s wrong,” I encourage you to ask yourself two questions: (i) Did they engage me in honest dialogue about where I’m wrong? (ii) Do their arguments deal with my actual claims as I’ve made them?

These things matter.