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.

 

Colin Kaepernick, Racial Identity and the Power of Protest

NFL player Colin Kaepernick has made headlines recently by refusing to stand for the national anthem before football games in protest. It’s a protest linked to racial identity and politics, as Kaepernick has said that he wants to draw attention to the issue of police brutality, specifically toward people of color in the US. However, a number of political pundits, celebrities and self-identified patriots on social media have taken issue with Kaepernick’s protest. While some of the push back he has received is about the politics of patriotism, a good deal of it is about whether his racial identity gives him the authority and legitimacy to talk about race.

(Image source)

Kaepernick is biracial and was adopted and raised by white parents. His white birthmother is among the critics of his protest, who scolded him on Twitter, saying:

Some, like Fox News anchor Brian Kilmead, thought Kaepernick ungrateful to his white adoptive parents. Kilmead said: “Let’s be honest, he was adopted by two white parents, he was well supported. He is a great athlete, I’m sure he worked hard, I also heard his grades were great.”

Issues of racial identity and colorism are a key part of this story, as Rebecca Carroll writing at The Guardian, observes:

“While being light-skinned black or biracial, as Kaepernick is, affords its own privileges in a society riddled not just by racism but also by colorism, it doesn’t offer full immunity from racism – or anything close to it. Trolls called Kaepernick racial epithets, after all. He is a reminder that being black in America, no matter how light or dark skinned you are, means shielding yourself against the inevitable arbitrary assessment of your worth at the drop of a dime.”

As a self-identified multiracial scholar, the Kaepernick controversy has made think a lot about racial identity. I’m intrigued by the geneaology of race and racial identities—how much our categories for racial identification shift, yet how much they seemingly remain the same. The interest isn’t purely an intellectual one-it’s personal too. My mother is White (Irish) and my father is Brown (Latino). Because race is so salient in the United States—it’s how we organize and categorize much of our society—race is an integral part of our identity.

Personally, I’ve just had a difficult journey figuring out where I fit in. I was never Latina enough. I didn’t speak the language or embody the culture. Whites knew I wasn’t one of them-my nose looked different, my hair much too dark. But in a society that places a premium on race, how do you find consciousness if your existence has been racialized but you don’t fit into the preexisting racial categories? How can you be heard? What is your role in the fight for racial justice?

The public often uses racial identity as a litmus test as to whether people can attest to certain kinds of racial realities and lived experiences. If you’re black, then you can discuss the lived experiences of what your particular life has been like as a veritable person of color. If you’re white, you can try to understand the realities of white privilege and the oppression people of color must contend with in their daily navigation of life. But racial identity in much of the Western world has largely been constructed as dichotomous—you are black or you are white. If you’re racially ambiguous, your own testament to experiences as a member of a marginalized community is often silenced.

(Image source)

Kaepernick, like Jesse Williams an actor with a black father and a white mother who spoke out about racial injustice in a speech at the BET awards, have both faced resistance because of their mixed racial backgrounds, though both self-identify as Black. As the number of biracial and multiracial people in the United States increases, how do we reconfigure racial categories in a way that allows people to define their own realities and speak about issues that affect them as racialized bodies and beings?

Biracial and multiracial communities are not a monolith and they experience varying degrees of racialization. To be black and white is not the same as being white and Japanese. The racial identities of multiracial and biracial people are often constructed and decided for them, not by them, and when they do speak to issues of racism they are often silenced or discredited. In a country that continues to be plagued by the insidiousness of racism, the inclusion and validation of the experiences of marginalization is more important than ever to spark change.

 

In his prescient and seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, sociologist W.E.B DuBois suggested that, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Written in 1903, DuBois couldn’t foresee how relevant and timely his work would be in the 21st century. Dubois explores the black experience in the United States and the construction of race and its implications for power and control. One of Dubois’ more salient concepts, “double consciousness,” articulates the experience of viewing yourself through the eyes of the oppressed and the oppressor simultaneously and asserts a framework for understanding the lived experiences of people of color. Conversely, in The Souls of White Folk (1920), DuBois aims to understand whiteness and its accompanying constructed and ensuing white superiority, imperialism, and colonialization.

 

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), philosopher Frantz Fanon spends much time unpacking the psychological implications of colonization for people of color, articulating a resistance theory that defied the “dependency complex of the colonized” (Chapter 4). Fanon argues that Black people must actualize their critical consciousness toward empowerment. White people have constructed whiteness to be superior, and some Black people, Fanon posits, internalize the notion that white people are superior and develop an inferiority complex. But what happens to people of a multiracial or biracial background? Where do they (we) fit in now? Where did they (we) fit in historically?

 

Historically, there has only been Black or White when it comes to racial identity. There has been little wiggle room in between for emerging/shifting/evolving racial identities. This racially dichtomized categorization has been reinforced through our history. For example, think of the antiquated “one drop rule,” which decreed that anyone with a drop of “black blood” would be considered black. During slavery, children born to a slave mother immediately adopted her social and racial status despite the racial status of the father. Sure, you had the dehumanizing and mathematical sounding fractional configurations of racial identity—octoroon, quadroon, and mulatto. But all of those labels signified varying degrees of blackness. Biraciality and multiracialty weren’t concrete identities; to whites, these were gradations of Blackness. To other blacks, those gradations came with social and material benefits associated with proximity to whiteness.

 

By refusing to stand for the national anthem, Colin Kaepernick has not only made headlines. He’s asserted his right to speak out about racial justice and distanced himself from the benefits of whiteness.

 

 

~ Alyssa Lyons is a graduate student in sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY

 

Anti-Racist Protest in Minneapolis against NFL Team Name

Earlier this week (Nov.3), approximately 5,000 anti-racist activists marched from the University of Minnesota campus to the nearby NFL stadium to demand change of the name of the ‘Redskins’ franchise.

According to one report, a Native American (name not given) speaker said, “They don’t know how to honor us. We honor ourselves today.” People marching held up signs, some of which read: “Racial slurs are not an honor” and “There is no honor in a name that represents racism.” The comments contrasted those made previously by team owner Dan Snyder, who has insisted that the dictionary-defined offensive term actually means “honor” and “respect” toward Native Americans.

This short news video (3:02) reports on the march:

What action will you take to counter systemic racism?

Catching Racism: The Daily Show Takes on NFL Team’s Name

Last night, The Daily Show, aired a comedy segment on the controversy about the name of the Washington, D.C. NFL team’s name. The segment is below (7:19, with a short advert at the beginning):

Some of the Washington NFL fans included in the video objected to it even before it was aired.

What do you think?

Oneida Indian Nation Leads Effort to Change “Redskins” NFL Team Name

The Oneida Indian Nation of New York is leading a national effort urging the Washington NFL team to drop its offensive “redskins” name and mascot. The first ad in its “Change the Mascot” campaign has been released and some key people seem to be getting the message.

Recently, the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has declared that league and team officials “need to be listening” to the mounting calls for change. The commissioner’s declaration, made during an interview with a Washington, D.C. radio station.  Reporting on Goodell’s comments, the Associated Press noted that “momentum for a switch has been growing.”

Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said:

“We are encouraged to see that Mr. Goodell is joining us and so many others in calling for a serious discussion about ending the Washington team’s use of a racial slur. Mr. Goodell is absolutely right – it is time for the Washington team’s owners to start listening. If Dan Snyder continues to be dismissive of the concerns of Native Americans and disdainful of the fact his franchise bears a name that is defined in the dictionary as an epithet, it will be incumbent upon the other owners, the League and the Commissioner to step in and take action.”

The plan is to have ads that run each week in every city the Washington NFL team visits. The campaign isn’t about mere ‘political correctness’ because this sort of language carries with an implicit violence.

 

(Image posted by Twitter user @Mzhakdo)

Even if the NFL commissioner and the Washington, D.C. football franchise doesn’t want to change the mascot because it’s racist, perhaps they will be moved to change it so that they can distance themselves from images like the one above.  Surely, someone at the NFL thinks this sort of symbolic racial violence hurts their brand.