At a rally in Huntsville, Ala., last month, President Trump NFL team owners to fire players who choose to kneel during the national anthem. The next day, more than 200 players protested during the anthem by joining arms or kneeling.
While I respect these players' efforts, I am cautious of giving the NFL too much credit. I viewed the protests as more opportunistic than earnest, as the NFL is now comfortable with Colin Kaepernick’s method of kneeling during the national anthem, as long as the protest is not about a racial issue.
Kneeling this past Sunday signified an alliance to Roger Goodell, Robert Kraft, and other members of the NFL establishment who criticized President Trump. President Trump’s comments essentially shamed players for exercising their right to free speech, an ideal most Americans rally behind, regardless of skin color or socioeconomic status. Speaking out against a President with a approval rating is easy.
Speaking out against police brutality and racial inequality is not. Colin Kaepernick’s journey through the NFL stands as a more telling example of the NFL’s commitment to civil rights than the recent anthem protests. Reviving the legacy of black athletes protesting during the national anthem, Kaepernick had stated that he refused to stand for a flag that does not protect all of its citizens equally, citing instances of police brutality against people of color as what prompted him to kneel.
Many commentators, coaches, and players bashed Colin Kaepernick for using football as a venue for “political” protest. The backlash that Kaepernick received had a major impact on his career, revealing how little the NFL truly wants its players to be outspoken members of society. Kaepernick did not play most of last season, and he is currently not signed to an NFL team as a result. A few NFL players joined him in protest last year, but most remained silent through the season.
These players remained silent until protesting the flag shifted from a racial statement to an anti-Trump one. Those same coaches and players who chided Kaepernick’s racially minded protest last season linked arms and knelt on Sunday. Their willingness to participate this time in a “political” demonstration does not speak to a growth in conviction, but rather increased convenience.
Actively participating in racial politics is more controversial at this point in U.S. politics and culture than speaking out against Trump. None of the players who participated last Sunday have been benched. None of the players who participated last Sunday have had their contracts reviewed. They did the same thing Kaepernick did; yet it appears that because he was protesting strictly along racial lines, his outcome was a bit different.
Trump’s comments took the risk out of protesting for many players, but also gave the NFL the chance to appease communities of color by emulating Kaepernick’s approach, while echoing recent rallies from the alt-right that have defended free speech. As America’s sport, football was smart to find a way to represent varied opinions held by the people of the United States all in one day.
Well played does not mean brave, however. The protests this weekend were not as much of a risk as players are touting them to be; but, at least these players are doing something. If there is any corporation with the ability to influence the U.S. public, it is the NFL.
I will be looking on to see whether the NFL’s socially conscious streak endures. I have a feeling that as national anthem protests fade from being trendy hashtags, the NFL will take note and put its idealistic moment behind. These demonstrations may have appeared to be encouraging, but they do not signify the NFL growing into a champion for movements such as Black Lives Matter or any other platform for racial equality.
Rachel Kennedy is a first-year from Dedham, Mass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.