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.