University of Memphis

A Chance for Change or an Unholy Union? The National Football League, Protests and Democratic Values by Hunter Irons @ University of Memphis

It has been almost fifteen months since Colin Kaepernick first protested the national anthem and started what has become a mega story in the spheres of sports and politics. While Kaepernick remains the central figure in discourses on the matter, it has undoubtedly metamorphosed into what some would consider an unrecognizable movement. What originally began as a protest against police brutality has spiraled into overall themes and concerns about race, freedom of speech, and respect for the military. It can be argued that the playing of the national anthem before NFL games and the actions taken during it have become a microcosm for democratic values such as equality and freedom of speech. In short and along the same lines, this has become a political issue. As is usually the case with most protests, many are not particularly happy about the situation.

This has hardly been the first protest in American sports history, and Kaepernick is certainly not the first symbolic sports figure in relation to social justice. Famous instances and athletes include Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ demonstration at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with the Black Power salute, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s protest of the national anthem during the 1995-1996 NBA season, and Muhammad Ali’s stances in general.

The ability to play in the NFL – and all other professional sports leagues for that matter – is a dream for people from all backgrounds and races. Football is often argued as the ultimate team sport, and it could very well be considered the epitome of democratic values upon closer examination. Equality (every player is needed), participation (it takes all players in concert to achieve the desired goal), and a civil society of sorts (i.e., unity/togetherness, trust, a determined mindset, etc.) are extremely prevalent. Therefore, it begs the question of whether protesting (which is a guarantee for legitimate democracies) should have a place in the sport.

There are many sides to this issue, and anyone who believes the answers to it are clear-cut is sadly mistaken.

Many people do not like the mixing of politics and sports. Anyone who considers the playing field (or court) a borderline sacred environment does not want anything taking away from the ecstasy athletic competition is capable of providing. Also, sports – along with many other forms of entertainment – is often deemed an escape from the daily grind of life.

A major point of view maintains that the NFL is a business, the fans are consumers, the players are employees, and the owners are employers. Whether one likes it or not, it would be foolish to neglect the fact that employers have an obligation to entertain and satisfy the demands of customers. Therefore, many believe it is the players’ job to put on the best show possible for the fans.

Along the same lines, there is the legitimate issue of workplace conduct and the notion that while you are at work you are to follow the guidelines of the business you work for. The NFL does not have rules in place regarding the ability of players to stand or not for the anthem. This is the opposite of the NBA, who has had rules in place since Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s protest in the 1995-1996 NBA season. NBA players to this day do not test the regulations regarding the anthem.

Recently, the discussion around the protests has increasingly centered around the military. This was never intended to be a statement about the military. It was about what players feel is racial injustice. However, not standing for the anthem is understandably seen as anti-military by some. The NFL is a hardliner for blue-collar America, so the negative feelings toward the protests should come as no surprise. Those that have made this an anti-military issue have been successful, as the NFL’s Players Association has ramped up its pro-military advertising. Although, this does coincide with the NFL’s annual Salute to Service, so that makes it a bit more difficult to dissect.

On the opposite end of the spectrum regarding the ability of players to protest, many are taking a First Amendment stance. They would maintain that as Americans and members of arguably the most exemplary democracy ever known, players should absolutely be able to voice their concerns on the grounds of freedom of speech.

The last point of view that necessitates discussion is the most obvious one. This is the side that is most concerned with the notion that there are legitimate concerns regarding police brutality and race in general. That is not to say many of those with the aforementioned points of view do not believe these issues are present. However, those with this mindset are seemingly guided by the original cause Kaepernick and other players were concerned about. They believe that minorities are being repressed, and players can and should voice their concerns and demonstrate.

There are many who likely feel sympathy to all sides of the debate. However, the point that there are this many sides indicates the message the players were trying to originally send has been lost. Unfortunately, many of our leaders on all sides have naturally used this for political gain. President Trump’s choice words about the protests certainly helped fuel the fire. He referred to those kneeling as SOBs and said they should be fired. For contextual purposes, he did not directly ask for them to be fired. He also said if fans left the games during protests, it would put an end to it. Oddly enough, since he made these comments, the volume of protests have dwindled to a degree. It is likely impossible to know exactly how much of an effect President Trump had on this.

Protests, regardless of the form, and the overall debate will persist. All sides have invested too much for it to wither and die. Until proponents of all sides can come to some basic understandings, it does not seem likely that much more progress will be made in relation to the original intent of the protests. It may come to the point where players will have to be willing to sacrifice their jobs for the causes they wish to partake in. It is unclear whether Kaepernick knew if he would be unemployed for this amount of time before he first started the movement. After becoming a free-agent in the offseason, he has yet to be signed. He is currently suing the NFL on the grounds of collusion, but it is currently undetermined if owners collectively decided not to hire him.

This is not an incredibly diverse or mass movement. Very few players are protesting, and the ones that have been demonstrating for the most part are minorities. Players of all races have been standing arm in arm and putting their hands on kneeling players’ shoulders as a sign of solidarity. There are media outlets (sports and political), along with some celebrities that are on the side of the players. However, it appears that a majority have dug into their respective opposing political trenches, and there have not been many signs that would make one believe any legitimate institutional improvement (whatever that may look like) is on the horizon. The differing sides cannot even come to a consensus about how much of a problem exists that necessitates protests occurring in the first place. If one is looking at the situation through a purely democratic lens, then it seems safe to surmise that players should be allowed to protest. However, if one is taking into account the other aspects of the debate, it is not that simple.


  1. Laura Stavinsky

    December 4, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    I have a question regarding your initial cause for posing and answering the question this post addresses- why does the fact that football is, “the epitome of democratic values”, impact whether or not protesting should have a place in the sport? Should the democratic nature of a recreational activity be even apart of the conversation about exercising democratic rights?

  2. Will Conard

    December 6, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    Hunter, this is a really interesting essay on a very polarizing topic. I think you’re correct in that from a purely democratic perspective, the protests should be allowed. It certainly complicates beyond that, although I would still suggest that there is very little validity in most any counter argument against the protests. Certainly the NFL is a business and the players are employees – and clearly there is a manner in which employees must act in any particular business. I think Abdul-Rauf’s protest is interesting as it directly relates, but I think it doesn’t negate the validity of the protest nor does it act as a counter-example of what an organization should do. I think the NBA silencing anthem protests is a major issue just as it is when NFL owners tell their players not to kneel. Similarly I disagree with your notion that very few players are protesting. The nature of the protest has changed but, for example, the entire New Orleans Saints team kneels before the anthem and stands linked as a unit as it is sung. Additionally I would propose that the protest has not become confused in its motivations and its purpose has not been lost. Those who aimed to silence the protest perverted it. It’s also worth noting that most of those who opposed the protests are not only blue collar but also white. They were the ones who suggested it was anti-military; they were the ones who suggested it was anti-police. This does not mean that those are inherent truths – quite the opposite. The protest itself still operates in response to continuing national racism. This is the primary subject that I think should be inspected here. Sports – or similar forms of entertainment – have always acted as catharsis for a damaged public but that does not mean that they escape politics. Politics are inherent in every aspect of our society and certainly a business in which most of the employees are people of color – primarily black – and most of the executives are white should not act as if they are exempt. Racism is similarly pervasive in our culture and those attempting to shed light on it should not be repressed. I think, if anything, the responses to these protests have proved how necessary they ultimately were and are.

  3. John Iacovino

    December 12, 2017 at 9:40 am

    I think in the context of the sports world it is important to look at the industry as an entertainment industry above all else. Players are granted a massive amount of media access. Should their free speech be subject to censorship simply because of their access to media? One could argue that it is even more pressing for NFL players to be able to make these kinds of comments because of their ability to reach a specifically targeted audience of blue collar America at large. Lebron James and other NBA players regularly comment on police brutality and Trump, but these comments rarely stir controversy as the NBA is viewed predominately by minorities. I would argue the controversy surrounding NFL protests is less to do with a dilemma on where and when one should protest freely and more to do with a difference in point of view from the owners and viewers of football and desire for repression on their part to appease their blue-collar viewers.

  4. Samuel Beermann

    December 12, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    I enjoyed reading this post a lot, I think you have done a great job detailing the complicated situation that has been reoccuring every week in the NFL. One thing I still dont quite understand with this situation is how those who oppose this type of protest turn it around so quickly on the players and to say that they are not protesting for a cause but instead are somehow protesting against the USA and its military. Why is it that when someone protests a specific issue, like Kaepernick was doing against police brutality, it is so easily switched around and its meaning lost? Another thing you did not mention is that this debate is clearly racially influenced. It began as a protest against the way police handle African-American citizens and the brutality that persists in those encounters. Those who have opposed this protests seem as though they simply do not hear what the protesters are actually saying. All many of those white viewers see is an African-American player kneeling during the Anthem and disrespecting “their” Country. This debate has grabbed America’s attention and will continue to do so for some time. It will be interesting also to see, like you mentioned, if other players do indeed end up losing jobs, or if Kaepernick ends up returning to the football field.

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