By: Erica Prosser
In a time when sport is typically a powerful unifying force, the NFL social justice protests have become as divisive as any issue we’ve seen. The story is this: generally speaking, black athletes are kneeling in protest during the national anthem, and white fans are infuriated. And, just like with any politically charged issue, the protests' opposition has hijacked the narrative. To be clear, black athletes are taking a knee to protest police brutality, criminal injustice, and racial inequality. They are not protesting the anthem or the military that fights to protect us, contrary to the stories we have been hearing from national news outlets.
This protest has done exactly what a protest is meant to do - make people pay attention. But instead of discussing the issue at hand - police brutality, racial inequality, and criminal justice reform - we are discussing the gesture. Unfortunately, privileged white people have distorted the narrative to make this about the military. If a player kneels, he doesn’t respect the flag, the country, or soldiers. Last time I checked, patriotism isn't just about the military. It's about loving your country and being proud of its ideals and values. Men and women of color who are subjected to systematic racism do not feel loved by their country, valued by their neighbors, or proud of the systems that continuously fail them. They are trying to live in the freedom that they are supposedly granted by the flag and everything it stands for.
We hear, “What about the men and women who have given their lives to protect our freedom?” To everyone who asks that, please take a moment to ask yourself a different question: what about the lives of innocent people of color that have been taken by police brutality and mass incarceration? They don't matter because they weren't wearing camo? This rhetoric and vitriol is exactly why the Black Lives Matter movement started in the first place. By making this argument about disrespecting fallen soldiers, you are saying these black lives don't matter as much as soldiers' lives, if at all. Soldiers should undoubtedly be respected for their sacrifice. But so should people of color. While you stand for your fallen brothers and sisters, they will kneel for theirs.
That leads us to a second argument from the opposition: keep politics out of sports. Find a different way to protest. If you have a TV to tune into the NFL, then you certainly have a TV to watch the news. And you will know that no matter what method of protest people of color employ, there is unrelenting criticism. Marching? No. Pulling down statues? No. Rioting? Absolutely not. They can’t march, can't gather in the streets, definitely can't incite violence, and now, they can't kneel. Please, white people, tell us what they can do? Oh, I know - shut up, and play football.
Can we, for a moment, consider the minstrel show that is professional football? We have predominantly black teams competing in an arena while predominantly white owners sell tickets to other white people to watch the competition. So, when I hear that absurd argument to keep politics out of sports, I hear: “Just do what your told, win games, we will let you stick around. We will continue to show faux-support, as long as you continue to entertain us. But the second you step out of line, we will metaphorically, if not physically, lynch you.” When you argue to keep politics out of sports, you are admitting, "I'm uncomfortable with you bringing my privilege to my attention. I turn on the TV because you are entertainment; you are money-making machines. I don't pay for your humanity, your intelligence, or your feelings. I pay to use your body as my entertainment.”
Argument number three: “Rich black athletes are luckier than most to be making millions playing sports. They are not the people who should be protesting the system.” Okay, so rich black men can't protest, but when is the last time we listened to a poor black man's concerns? Oh, that's right - never. We are telling an entire population that it doesn’t matter what they accomplish, how much they earn, what kind of notoriety and/or influence they enjoy, that their voices, feelings, experiences, and lives do not matter. They are worthless unless they are entertaining us, the white majority.
This incredibly important dialogue should not be about ratings, or patriotism, or even if Colin Kaepernick should have a job. It’s about racial inequality and the symptomatic effects that plague Americans of color. The question becomes, how do those protesting regain control of the narrative? I believe it may require a comprehensive set of actionable goals. What is the end game? What are some tangibles that we can work towards as a collective group?
Of course, we’ve seen some movement by individual players and even some teams. Colin Kaepernick has donated nearly $1 million to social justice programs. Malcom Jenkins is lobbying for criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill. The Miami Dolphins have created a player-owner social justice fund. It's clear that NFL athletes, and professional athletes in general, have incredible power and influence to disrupt the system. We need to identify concrete goals to work against, not only to silence the opposition, but ultimately, to improve the quality of life for people of color in the United States.