This is quite an admission for me, but I’m not really enjoying the current NFL season. I’ve said in past seasons that I’m tired of learning more about pro football players from the police blotter than the sports page. But this season is different still. Issues like race, social justice, politics and culture have made their intrusion in ways they haven’t in at least 50 years. The Colin Kaepernick/national anthem/patriotism vs. unjust killings of Black citizens imbroglio have brought them all home in stark reality.
Last year, Kaepernick remaining seated during the national anthem, was, for a while, easy to ignore. No longer a starter, he was considered slightly better than a marginal player; no longer the Super Bowl quarterback he was a few years ago. But his profile grew far beyond consideration of his talents on the gridiron as he began sitting for the national anthem played before every NFL contest. It was a protest against police brutality and racial inequity, he explained. More particularly, a protest against the killing of unarmed Black citizens by many of our nation’s police. He was persuaded by former Staff Sgt. Nate Boyer to modify his protest by kneeling as the anthem was played.
Kaepernick is no longer in the league, blackballed by NFL owners, many of whom have said anonymously that they are “disgusted” by Kaepernick’s non-violent protest. No owners have expressed similar disgust over the dead Black bodies which are the reason for the protest, nor have they expressed “disgust” with their players found guilty of or who have been in various stages of adjudication for, domestic violence, rape, drug and alcohol abuse, PED use or assault. Instead, they’ve hidden behind arguments of patriotism.
Even this nation’s president has gotten in on the act. Deflecting from his political impotence and referring to Black players in demeaning and deprecating terms, he said and keeps on saying that players who do not express patriotism by standing for the flag or the anthem, should be “fired.” He continually berates the players and supportive ownership, threatening to take away their non-exempt tax status (which they gave up years ago) and ignores the fact that he failed to express the patriotism he now glorifies in by refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam era – he took five draft deferments because of “bone spurs” and “education” – or by supporting the anti-war movement.
Meanwhile more players are engaged in protest; more since Kaepernick’s initial lonely stance, more since the season started, more since the president’s inelegant and ineloquent banal broadsides. More players are speaking out. Players like Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, who was himself a victim of what he deemed to be excessive use of police force, NFL free-agent Anquan Boldin, who lost a cousin in a police-involved shooting, as well as the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins and Johnson Bademosi of the Detroit Lions, all calling for reform and better relationships between police and minority communities.
It appears the nation is listening: According to the Huffington Post, 57 percent of Americans polled in October understand that the players are protesting police violence, as opposed to just 48 percent polled in September – quite an accomplishment, considering that the “how” regarding the protests hasn’t reached anything approaching national consensus.
Nor should it.
Protests should make people uncomfortable. Protests should make waves. Protests should invite controversy. Protests should provoke. And protests should cost.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott of the mid-50s not only cost the bus system revenue; it cost everyone who refused to ride the buses. Leading the Freedom Rides when freedom riders were in jails, hospitals or too afraid to continue cost Diane Nash, as she dropped out of college to assume the mantle of leadership. It’s costing Kaepernick, who remains blackballed by the NFL, and other NFL players, who may be risking their careers or endorsements.
The question that’s keeping me from enjoying this current football season is whether not our support of the protest is costing the rest of us anything.
Rev. Gerald Britt Jr., is vice president of External Affairs for CitySquare. He is the author of Civic Sermons: Ideas for a Different Civic Culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.