With the start of autumn in the United States comes apple pie, fall foliage, and football season. The National Football League’s (NFL) 2016 season was kicked off by an unusual symbolic protest that has spurred a national conversation. Colin Kaepernick, a biracial quarterback on the San Francisco 49ers, decided to use his position of privilege to turn the spotlight on police brutality and institutionalized racial inequality in America by sitting during the national anthem. The responses that followed were anything but silent.
Football is the quintessential American tradition. The sport was created in the US in the late 1800’s but the modern NFL style football did not emerge until the 1920’s. Over the years, the NFL has gained a tremendous following with millions across the country embracing the sport. The NFL also serves as an entertainment industry giant. It is the most watched sports league in the US by a significant margin; the Super Bowl gets more viewers each year than several entertainment award shows combined. Approximately 60% of the NFL’s viewers are men and 78% of viewers are white. Furthermore, 39% of the NFL’s audience are age 50 or older and are generally of middle class backgrounds.
Kaepernick’s protest and the response that followed illuminate the problem he is addressing; when people (particularly people of color) shed light on systematic inequalities, they are demonized. Some fans burned his jerseys, others denounced him on social media — calling for him to lose his position on the 49ers or hoping that he’d get injured — and some sent death threats. Several police forces considered not providing security for teams with protesting players on game day.
On the other hand, Kaepernick’s actions also inspired countless others across the country to join him in solidarity. Players in the NFL, entire high school football teams, and players from other sports joined him with raised fists and knees on the ground. As a black American silently challenging rampant institutional injustices, he is condemned for exercising his American right to do so. Kaepernick proves his point without uttering a single word.
People watch football to be entertained, not to engage in a political discussion. The juxtaposition of the protesters’ peacefulness and the outrage in the response suggests that NFL viewers care deeply about the game being apolitical. Rather than direct their unhappiness to the pressing issue, they turn it on Kaepernick for being “inappropriate,” “unacceptable,” and “disrespectful” in starting this discussion here and now. “It’s just not the place or time,” was a common complaint from 49er’s fans after the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams. NFL players are viewed as entertainers and performers first; human beings second. When human emotions come to the field through protest, the players’ roles as both performers and citizens conflict. When white viewers watch that conflict occur, they become uncomfortable.
The racial composition of NFL football players is not the same as that of the viewers who watch them. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports gave the NFL a grade of A+ for their racial diversity with 71.5% of players being non-white. Subsequently, the important inequality issues that Kaepernick challenges are not as important to the people watching him. White, middle-class men over 50 do not want to think about institutional inequalities at large when the Giants are playing the Eagles. The fact that it is brought up during this “sacred time” is met with extremity. White viewers are allowed to have particular times in which they do not have to think about these topics, whereas non-white NFL players, regardless of their status, are not. Pervasive inequalities follow them throughout their lives in every context; something that white viewers, no matter how they sympathize with Kaepernick, will never experience. This disconnect coupled with the symbolic use of the national anthem to further the Black Lives Matter agenda stirs aggression from some viewers. The players, however, see this as the ideal time to start a discussion. Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds and only come into positions of privilege because they are excellent at playing a game. Without the sport, they would not have any influence or privilege, and they know what it would be like to have it all stripped away.
This fact, combined with the viewership that the NFL attracts, make weekly-televised games the perfect setting for players to exercise their constitutional right to protest. The games are their moment on camera, and they are able to use their celebrity for something bigger than themselves. While protesting during the national anthem may seem disrespectful to some, the meaning behind it is actually profound. What is more American than being totally free to criticize your government, President, or police force at any time or place? The national anthem is a symbol of American greatness; as is our incredible freedom to protest, and the players know it.
This week two more black men, Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott were killed by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Charlotte, North Carolina. Neither man acted aggressively toward the police; both are dead. The object of Kaepernick protest and the Black Lives Matter movement persists, apparently without end. The problem is not Kaepernick and the others who protest with him, but rather the glaring inability for a large portion of the America public to have a serious, self-reflexive conversation about race and inequality, and work to change what should be broadly understood as intolerable.