A Freedom to Kneel
National Anthem protests in the National Football League (NFL) and other professional sports leagues are still showing no signs of declining in relevance. At a game last Sunday, Oct. 8, in Indianapolis between the Colts and San Francisco 49ers, Vice President Mike Pence left the stadium immediately after seeing multiple 49ers players kneel during the anthem. As the kneeling controversy roars on, punctuated by high profile dissent from the Trump Administration, it’s easy to lose sight of what sparked the protest in the first place-- police brutality.
He later explained his decision in a series of tweets, saying, “I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem. At a time when so many Americans are inspiring our nation with their courage, resolve, and resilience...now, more than ever, we should rally around our Flag and everything that unites us. While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem.”
For the record, Pence’s decision was seen by many as a publicity stunt. Reporters traveling with Pence and his security team were advised to stay in their media van because “an early departure from the game” was likely. A tweet from President Donald Trump shortly after Pence left the stadium also corroborates this theory: “I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country. I am proud of him and @SecondLady Karen.”
Did Trump actually not expect players to kneel? After all, Indianapolis’ opponent that day, the San Francisco 49ers, have arguably been the NFL’s most spirited protesting team after their former quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, became the first player to sit for the anthem before a preseason game in August 2016.
Regardless, Pence’s stance is influencing the opinions of others. This past Monday, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, one of the NFL’s most ubiquitous personalities, inferred that he would bench his players if they continued to protest, declaring “if there’s anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play. Period.” NFL executives, meanwhile, are discussing the possibility of requiring players to stand before the anthem after drawing the ire of many fans around the country.
A larger point is being lost, however, amid this latest talk of forcibly ending these protests concerning the right all Americans have to peacefully express their opinions. As Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy noted on Tuesday in response to the NFL possibly requiring players to stand for our country’s anthem, because “it’s going to be uproar if that is to happen because you’re basically taking away a constitutional right to freedom of speech.”
Part of the frustration over criticism of this protest stems from scrutiny concerning other forms of protest regarding the marginalization of minorities. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, has been labeled “too aggressive,”and “godless.” Coupled with claims that kneeling for the anthem, a nonviolent, silent protest is disrespectful, how exactly are minorities going to be permitted to protest?
As it relates to the Skidmore community, and particularly Skidmore athletes, McCoy’s point should still apply. No one should feel uncomfortable in exercising their right to peacefully protest. It is unfortunate that negative responses to the protests have moved the conversation away from the original mission -- raising awareness about police brutality -- towards symbolism of the American flag and attitudes towards veterans.
The Board feels that all should honor those who have served in the armed forces, but also that Americans, sports stars included, don’t have to choose between respecting veterans and advocating for marginalized groups. What we really should be talking is whether incidents of police brutality toward minorities are on the decline.
Image from British Association for American Studies.