During the last NFL season, Colin Kaepernick, then a San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, took a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Since then, other players have joined Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice, including police brutality.
This year, others have protested Kaepernick’s continuing exclusion from the league. Still others have knelt to stand up against President Donald Trump and his allies who have demanded that the protests end. Throughout the various NFL protests and their stated motivations, no one has claimed to be demonstrating against the national anthem, the nation’s flag or its troops.
Nevertheless, Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, has said players on his team will stand during the anthem or they won’t play. He says kneeling is disrespectful. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says team owners will discuss the demonstrations during meetings in New York this week. Representatives of the NFL Players Association are expected to participate in the meetings.
As those meetings unfold, it would be wise for the owners to remember they own their franchises, but not the games, the players or their rights as Americans to protest.
The protesting players kneel along a path charted by countless men and women who have marched in defense of their civil and human rights and a better America. There is no reason for NFL players or any other Americans to play Mother May I? with team owners or other bosses regarding the exercise of their First Amendment rights.
Still, there can be stark consequences for exercising one’s rights in America. The players are vulnerable to being demonized and exiled, especially if they fail to stand together.
But no matter how the owners seek to circumscribe or proscribe player protests during NFL games, the athletes and the rest of America remain free to work to change the circumstances that prompt the demonstrations.
Meanwhile, the debate about the Confederate flag and other remnants of the Confederacy continues. Proponents say the flag, monuments to Confederate troops and generals, and even holidays in their name are merely benign celebrations of Southern heritage and essential artifacts of the nation’s history.
But those who oppose the valorizing of Confederate people, places and things understand that the Civil War — rooted in white supremacy and its offspring: slavery and black oppression — presented the gravest threat our nation has faced. By the end of the war in 1865, more than 600,000 people had died, making it the nation’s bloodiest conflict. Almost 100 years later, the ghosts of the Civil War claimed the lives of four little black girls in a Birmingham, Alabama, church.
And in August, the specter of the Civil War struck again, this time in Charlottesville, Virginia. Heather Heyer, a white woman, had gone to that city, home to the University of Virginia, to protest right-wing zealots who were marching. She was struck by a car and killed. The driver, James Alex Fields Jr., has been charged with second-degree murder.
Furthermore, the opponents of glorifying Confederate titans know that monuments to Confederate war “heroes” obscure the nation’s cruel history with slavery rather than illuminate it. They know that during the 1950s, elements of the Confederate flag were stretched into white opposition to black civil rights. And they know that at this very moment, the Confederate flag is being used as a symbol of white supremacy in the United States and in Europe.
The contrasting views of the NFL protests and the meaning of Confederate flags and monuments are part of a conflict in America that touches everything from sports champions visiting the White House to our clothing choices and our hairstyles: Who decides what our actions and symbols mean?
For example, earlier this month, a young black woman in New York was stunned to learn that her box braids prompted her manager at a Banana Republic clothing store to rebuke her on the grounds that she was too urban (read: black), unkempt and didn’t fit the store’s image. Other organizations have sought to prohibit their black employees from wearing some natural hairstyles in their workplaces, and some courts have sustained their right to do so.
Power and money are on the side of employers who seek to ban black workers wearing locs, just as they are on the side of the NFL owners and those who seek to continue celebrating a mythical view of the 19th century South in 21st century America.
As always, power and money loom as formidable and determined foes of morality and truth. They form a mighty wheel that’s being pushed up a mountain.
Flags, and now hair, symbolize our independent thinking. Put your shoulder to the wheel or be prepared to get rolled over.