NFL Protests and Racial Politics of Patriotism

This blog post is coauthored by Anthony Weems, Kristi Oshiro, and John Singer

(Image: The Seattle Times)

Friday night’s rally in Huntsville, Alabama sparked the beginning of what proved to be a hectic weekend for President Donald Trump. Only, the chaos was not related to the upcoming Senate health care vote or post-hurricane relief in Puerto Rico as some might expect but rather the president felt the need to address athlete activism, specifically targeting the National Football League (NFL). In a weak attempt to redefine black athletes’ protests of systemic racism, oppression, and police brutality as a disrespect to the US flag and the US military, Trump criticized NFL players who have openly protested by kneeling or sitting in peaceful protest during the national anthem. Moreover, Trump arrogantly and disrespectfully referred to these athletes as “sons of a bitches”, and suggested owners should exercise their power and have them fired. He would later take to Twitter and argue that the NFL should make their players stand during the national anthem. In the days that followed, NFL players, coaches, owners, and other personnel met to discuss how to strategically respond before taking the field for the highly-anticipated game day on Sunday.

As for the NFL, September 24th, 2017 will forever go down in history as “choose-your-side Sunday.” Coming on the heels of the Alabama rally, the comments made about NFL athletes protesting served as a catalyst for a protest unprecedented in the NFL (or any other league for that matter). Whether kneeling, sitting, locking arms, raising fists in solidarity, or remaining in the locker room altogether during the national anthem, as a collective unit the NFL made a statement that transcended national boundaries, as hundreds of athletes, coaches, owners, executives, and other staff across the league responded in unity to criticisms made by Trump. However, in all of the chaos springing from the weekend of September 22nd, 2017, it is important that we refocus our attention on what it means to #TakeAKnee.

Colin Kaepernick and Taking the Knee

When Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand during the national anthem in 2016, he was pretty much alone. Though many black athletes and athletes of color had been using their platforms to bring racial injustice to the forefront for years, Kaepernick’s silent and peaceful protest during the national anthem brought the politics of racism and police brutality into the homes of many Americans – particularly, white Americans:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained shortly after kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Working with Dr. Harry Edwards while still a member of the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick engaged in peaceful protest that sparked what Dr. Edwards has referred to as the fourth wave of black athlete activism. Originally, this silent protest only involved a handful of other NFL players such as Kaepernick’s former teammates, Eric Reid and Eli Harold, or Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks. Kneeling as a form of silent protest, however, would continue to spread across sports.

Throughout various sports and across different levels of sport participation, black athletes (both male and female) began to take a knee to bring awareness to the unjustified treatment of Americans of color, particularly black Americans that were murdered while the police officers responsible often received paid administrative leave. Players in the WNBA have consistently been at the forefront of protests for racial justice in recent years. Bruce Maxwell has become the first Major League Baseball (MLB) player to kneel during the national anthem. Raianna Brown, a dancer/cheerleader at the Georgia Tech, recently knelt during the national anthem. High school athletes across sports have knelt during the national anthem. Even youth teams across sport have taken to the protest of taking a knee.

Creating what many are referring to as “the Kaepernick effect,” the gesture of kneeling in sports has become a movement in itself. And for those who have boldly taken the knee, the message has remained clear. Even as entire NFL franchises have come forward in support of player protests during the national anthem, the message has not changed. Take this statement from the players of the Seattle Seahawks before their game on Sunday for example:

The current protests by players in the NFL have been about and continue to be about “the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country.” In fact, contrary to many claims of these protests disrespecting the US flag or the military, the Seahawks players’ statement emphasizes honoring the country and the sacrifices that have been made in the name of equality and justice for all.

Following his firsthand experience with excessive force used by the Las Vegas Police Department on the night of the Mayweather/McGregor boxing match, Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett clearly stated that this kind of conduct by police is precisely why he kneels during the national anthem before every game. Note how Bennett says nothing in his statement about the US flag, the US military, or any other nationalistic form of politics in his statement. The protest has always been about how communities of color are policed and the devaluing of black and brown lives in the criminal (in)justice system. When Trump lashed out at NFL players who were protesting, he wasn’t defending the flag, military veterans, or patriotism – he was racially targeting US citizens who have bravely spoken up and out against a racist system.

Protesting Today

In recent years, athletes across sport leagues have consistently protested the systemic devaluing of black and brown lives by the judicial system. But following Trump’s comments about protesting (black) athletes needing to be fired and required to stand for the national anthem, NFL players responded. In a league-wide statement of unity amongst each other, NFL players sent a message. Across the league, players (and some coaches, staff, and administrators) either kneeled during the national anthem, locked arms with one another, raised their fist in solidarity, or refused to come out onto the field altogether during the anthem. And players such as Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas made it clear what message they were trying to send. In an interview on CNN, Thomas stated the following:

“[The protest] is about race,” he said adding that the players are fighting for “inequalities in our communities… It’s not about just us. It wasn’t about Kaepernick himself. It wasn’t about, you know, the athletes who chose to take a knee themselves,” Thomas said. “We’re speaking for everybody that’s come from the communities we’ve lived in and my family and friends still live in.”

This is in stark contrast to Trump claiming on Sunday that he

never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.

But race and racism is what taking a knee is all about. The policing of communities of color, the mistreatment of black and brown people by police, and the criminal lack of justice for these communities is what taking a knee is all about. Attempts to repackage the politics of white racism under the umbrella of “patriotism” serves to mask these issues while maintaining systemic racism.

The mainstream media have played a significant role in perpetuating this a-critical discourse that dilutes the very core of the message courageous individuals like Colin Kaepernick and others are trying to send. This has potentially created confusion amongst viewers that can be detrimental to the purpose of kneeling. In turn, current players like Eric Reid who was the first to kneel alongside Kaepernick are speaking out to reclaim their narratives and clarify the essence of their protest. In a recent New York Times opinion piece Reid shares his personal insight reflecting on the time dedicated to making the very informed and educated decision to stand up for his and others’ rights and to kneel during the national anthem in what he felt was the utmost respectable way.

What’s Patriotism Got to Do with It?

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick stated the following: “There’s a lot of racism disguised as patriotism in this country… but it needs to be addressed.” Over the course of the protests undertaken by predominantly black athletes and with the help from mainstream media outlets, many whites have sought to paint or label the protests as some sort of unpatriotic display that disrespects the US and its military. For whites, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. White Americans have long used “patriotism” as a proxy for white nationalism dating back to the Founding Fathers’ invocation of the “common cause” of white patriotism. Contemporarily, white nationalist groups such as the Christian Patriots Defense League have risen to prominence under this same banner of the patriot cause.

But for Americans of color, and particularly black Americans, the patriotic ideals of liberty and justice for all have historically been taken seriously. For instance, as W. E. B. Du Bois discussed in The Gift of Black Folk, the ideological challenge to the white-defined ideals of freedom and justice through the political struggles for equality by black Americans has helped significantly to push the US towards being a more democratic nation for all. This is true throughout US history as well as in today’s context. The Seattle Seahawks players’ statement referred to above embodies this challenge to the notions of equality and justice for all while simultaneously honoring those that have fought for these freedoms.

The language of white racism today is often masked by claims to patriotism. But when US President Trump referred to neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia as “very fine people” and black NFL athletes as unpatriotic “sons of a bitches,” NFL players were explicitly put in a position where they had to decide between standing for justice and supporting white supremacy. A US president – or anyone for that matter – that espouses this kind of rhetoric has no claim to patriotism; they are a white supremacist. The real patriots in this scenario are those that have (and continue to) courageously use their social platforms to bring critical issues to the forefront in the quest to make liberty, justice, and democracy a reality for all. Real patriots stand alongside one another and against systemic forms of oppression such as police brutality. Real patriots #TakeTheKnee.

 

 

Anthony J. Weems is a doctoral student in Sport Management at Texas A&M University working under Dr. John N. Singer. His research focuses on issues of race, power, and politics in and through the sport organizational setting.

Kristi F. Oshiro is a Sport Management Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University working with Advisor Dr. John N. Singer. Her research interests include diversity and inclusion in sport with a focus on the intersection of race and gender, culture, and the lived experiences of ethnic minority groups and marginalized populations from a critical perspective.

Dr. John N. Singer (Ph.D., The Ohio State University) is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests primarily focus on a) intersections between race, sport, and education, with a keen focus on complex and contextual realities Black males face as primary stakeholders in organized school sport; and b) diversity and social justice matters in sporting institutions and organizations, with an emphasis on the experiences and plight of historically underrepresented and marginalized groups.

 

U.S. Football: Grounded in White Masculine Framing

Theodore Roosevelt was the U.S. President from 1901-1909, a “manly man,” and an avid football advocate. As the “new American man” was beginning to take shape in the latter portion of the 19th century, the ideal was primarily being forged by

narratives that captured the experience and imagination of the Anglo-American settler, stories that were surely instrumental in nullifying guilt related to genocide and set the pattern of narrative for future US writers, poets, and historians.

As this ideology of “manifest destiny” became normalized, internalized, and institutionalized, there was a need for white masculinity to continue to redefine and re-invent itself. In doing so, figures like Roosevelt paved the way for a post-genocidal expansion ideal for white masculinity. Defining this new tough, rugged, militaristic form of what constitutes a “man” incited a social and cultural response in white America that still drives American society today: organized football. In this blog post I examine a trend uncovered in Google’s Ngram viewer and situate the sport of football as a social and cultural response to white masculinity as it was being defined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Defining (white) masculinity

As the settler-colonial conquest of Euro-Americans over the North American lands came to a close, most white-opposition (e.g., opposition by Native American nations, Mexicans, etc.) had been completely removed from the imperial vision of the U.S. White masculinity had predominantly been defined through the subjugation, colonization, and genocide of other peoples of color, such as the African/African-American slaves, the “Indian savages,” etc. However, as manifest destiny came to fruition in the North American lands, there was a need to redefine the “predatory ethic” inherent to white masculinity with a growing absence of those upon which whites could “prey.” From 1800-1890, Ngram shows a steady rise in the usage of the word “manliness” in popular texts of the time. These seminal writings of the time include works by Chapin in 1856, Hotchkin in 1864, and Hughes and Figgis in the 1880s. All of these defining texts are rooted in the Anglo-Protestant definition of a “man” (i.e., strong, brave, pious, intelligent, hard-worker, etc.). These Protestant definitions were always in relation the subjugated female who was to be docile, faithful, subservient, etc. As an example of the Anglo-Protestant root of white manliness, Figgis writes

Most young men know that the Latin word for “man” – at least, for a right manly man – is the word from which our English word virtue comes. Its derivative, as Dr. Trench has noticed, meant, on the lips of a Roman, physical strength and courage. It has sunk with the modern Italians, and with us when we speak of articles of “vertu,” to be applied to external art. And it has risen in the English word virtue, to the act and habit of duty. We may feel a modest national pride in this, and may gratefully conclude that in the thought of Englishmen virtue is the highest quality of a man; and so that manliness is most fully developed – the virtues, shall we say, of BRAVERY, HONESTY, ACTIVITY, and PIETY.(Capitalized for emphasis)

Here we see close ties in defining manhood between concepts like virtuosity, strength and courage, Englishness, and piety. So what we have then is a defining period for white masculinity, particularly in North America as white men demonstrated a delusional need for domination of others.

According to my search using the Ngram viewer, the textual use of the word “manliness” peaks around 1890. Interestingly, as the use of manliness approaches its peak throughout the 1880s, we begin to see the use (and increase in the use of) the word “football.” In 1894, the usage of both manliness and football converge, only to see football’s usage take off in the coming decades while the use of the word manliness declined to eventually maintain a steady low-usage rate throughout the 20th century. Next, the author discusses how this defining crisis in white masculinity led to the creation of the sport of American football.

Football as a cultural response

With a post-Native American and Mexican expropriation from North America, the U.S. needed a new outlet for white masculinity. This is where the sport of football comes in. The very first game of American football took place in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers universities. These institutions primarily (if not only) served young, well-off, white males and the game of football itself was played only by white men at the beginning. During this time, the game closely resembled that of European football (i.e., soccer). As white masculinity was in the midst of a crisis in defining its hegemonic boundaries, the game of football continued to evolve in the 19th century reflecting a desire to demonstrate white masculine dominance. The sport began adopting certain aspects of rugby, the “roughest” and “toughest” sport known at the time (and certainly still one today).

As the need to “manify” the sport continued to influence the development of football, we began to see something that resembles football as we know it today take shape. Towards the close of the 19th century, football had never been more popular. The sport reflected physicality, war-like tactics, and a desire to dominate through physical and psychological force. However, as the gladiator-like sport increased in popularity, so too did the resultant deaths from football participation. The sport was too crude to last as an institution. In comes Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt, often referred to as the savior of football.

Teddy Roosevelt became the national mythos for white masculinity at the turn of the 20th century. Although not a football player himself, Roosevelt often extolled the virtues of the sport of football and its contribution to American manliness (e.g., toughness, bravery, fearlessness, etc.). Meeting with other white male representatives from universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Roosevelt was able to step in and mandate certain rule and policy changes to the sport of football that would ensure the sport’s longevity in the midst of increasingly popular campaigns to ban the deathly sport. These changes would include the implementation of padding and leather helmets for players. Though still viewed as a crude form of football today, this change revolutionized the long-term viability of the sport. Roosevelt firmly believed that the sport of football was the key to developing “fine American men.” In a speech he once gave on how sport makes boys into men, Roosevelt stated

[An American man] cannot do good work if he is not strong and does not try with his whole heart and soul to count in any contest; and his strength will be a curse to himself and to everyone else if he does not have a thorough command over himself and over his own evil passions, and if he does not use his strength on the side of decency, justice and fair dealing… [I]t was a very bad thing when [the Greeks] kept up their athletic games while letting the stern qualities of soldiership and statemenship sink into disuse… In short, in life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard: don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard.

In consistently comparing the sport of football to a life and manhood, Roosevelt set a top-down standard defining white masculinity at the turn of the century. American football would not only survive the threat of banishment, it would thrive. The sport rapidly spread to universities throughout the U.S. until we eventually had youth leagues, interscholastic competition, and professional leagues.

Conclusion

Today, the sport of football is the embodiment of masculinity, militarism, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Though much has happened with regard to civil progress in the U.S. since the turn of the 20th century, football has always embodied these values. Today, the game has changed in that we now see a plantation-like system of black men engaging in physical labor for the production of white capital wealth. However, much like many other institutions, football was originally designed to work for the white male anyways. Examining a trend on Google’s Ngram viewer shows that a spike in the textual usage of “manliness” preceded an enormous spike in the usage of the word “football.” Indeed, this trend over the waning decades of the 19th century shows that white Christian masculinity was being hegemonically contested and defined in such a way that the formation of the game of football was the ideal social and cultural response to white masculinity. In defining both masculinity and football, we see how the two intersect with a white supremacist framing (particularly in a post-manifest destiny U.S.) in that all three constructs are rooted in white-defined notions of freedom, meritocracy, righteousness, colonialism, and imperialism.

Theodore Roosevelt, as the new standard for white American maleness, vehemently supported the sport of football as a catalyst to breed “good, strong American men.” In doing so, football indoctrinated values of manliness, hyper-competition, dominance, and imperialism into the public consciousness of the American people all while rooted in an Anglo-Protestant interpretation of “being a man.”

Today football continues to serve in this societal capacity, pushing settler-colonial narratives (e.g., Patriots, Cowboys, and 49ers) while also white-washing anti-other mascots such as the “R” team in Washington. All the while, football is still predominantly interpreted as a “fair” playing field in which men achieve greatness in a meritocratic system; that is, unless those men are black. In which case, black masculine success in a historically white masculine space is chalked up to be “natural athleticism” or “freakish talent.” Much contemporary inter-masculine subjugation (i.e., white-on-black subjugation) in football can be observed within the organizational hierarchies as black athletes continue to be excluded from powerful positions with decision-making authority. As a systemic issue, the “corporate-friendly militarism” of Roosevelt, plus his white supremacist and sexist ideologies, continues to form the heart and soul (or lack thereof) of contemporary American football.

Anthony Weems is a doctoral student in Sport Management studying under Dr. John N. Singer at Texas A&M University. His research focuses on issues of race, power, and politics in and through the sport organizational setting.