NFL unites and defies Trump to take a knee

President Trump’s attack on protesting NFL players united the league this weekend, with players, coaches and owners joining together in a show of solidarity and togetherness rarely seen in the sport. It’s been over a year since the exiled Colin Kaepernick first knelt in protest of the national anthem, why didn’t he receive the same levels of support? By Jamie Braidwood

 

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. 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.” Colin Kaepernick, August 26, 2016.

On Sunday August 26 at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco, just before the 49ers kicked off their preseason match against the Green Bay Packers, almost 70,000 people stood up, just as usual, for the national anthem. But as they did so, one man sat down.

When Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during that preseason game in August 2016, he did so because he saw a flag that didn’t represent freedom, but instead a flag that represented oppression and inequality. Why should he show for respect for a country that has such a horrific record of police brutality and homicide, where officers have a history of shooting and killing young black men without facing the consequences.

Over the season, Kaepernick continued to kneel. He did so mostly alone, a few fellow NFL professionals and teammates knelt with him, but his actions certainly went against the opinions of the majority of fans and owners, as well as other players. Not standing for the flag was the ultimate showing of disrespect, and it was something they were not comfortable with.

 

The 2016 season was a disastrous one for Kaepernick’s team, the San Francisco 49ers, as they finished bottom of their division with a miserable record of 2-14. Kaepernick himself, however, did not have an awful campaign, and finished the year with a Quarterback rating of 90.1, which was higher than his previous two seasons.

But as preparations began for the new NFL season, Kaepernick’s contract was not renewed. His protest, and the outrage that it caused, was undeniably the reason he was allowed to leave. For the 49ers, Kaepernick speaking out for what he believed in simply wasn’t worth the trouble.

He wasn’t worth the trouble for anyone else either. We are now three weeks into the 2017 NFL season and Kaepernick, an athletic and thrilling Quarterback who guided the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his first ever season, still does not have a team. None of the other 31 franchises would go near him. By speaking out for what he believed in, Kaepernick had been brave. He had also paid for it with his career.

***

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” President Trump, September. 22, 2017

But then everything changed. It took just one, rash and unprovoked message at a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, delivered by the most powerful man in the US. Whether players were in support of Kaepernick or not, Trump’s words were an attack on their profession, as well as their freedom of speech.

Instead of dividing the league, the comment’s at Friday’s rally united players and owners. At the NFL international game at Wembley arena in London, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shadiq Khan stood arm in arm with his players on the sidelines, many of whom were kneeling.

A protest that started with Kaepernick has grown into something much bigger. The NFL has had a number of institutional problems and scandals over the years, but on Sunday their response was strong and cohesive. They backed their players and teams and in direct defiance to Trump, Sunday saw more protests than ever.

 

The protests extended to outside the NFL too. On Saturday Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to kneel during the anthem. On Twitter, basketball stars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry were all vocal in their dissent of Trump. Curry and his NBA Champions Golden State have also declined Trump’s invitation to visit the White House.

“Our game has long provided a powerful platform for dialogue and positive change in many communities throughout our nation. Thanks primarily to our players, the NFL also has been a unifying force in our country and impactful change has and hopefully will continue to be the result of peaceful expression, done so in order to highlight social injustices of all kind. Negative and disrespectful comments suggesting otherwise are contrary to the founding principles of our country, and we do not support those countries or opinions.” Martha Firestone Ford, Detroit Lions owner, September 25, 2017.

So where do we go from here? Well, it’s important to remember the reason this all started was because Kaepernick was protesting against police brutality and social inequality. Trump may claim that his comments had nothing to do with race and he is only upset at any disrespect shown towards the flag, but since Kaepernick first knelt during the anthem the two have been intrinsically linked.

Any protest against the flag or against the anthem is a protest against social injustice and under this current administration, it is a fight that is more important than ever. At a time where white nationalists are defended as ‘very fine people’ while protesting NFL players are called ‘sons of bitches’, at a time where the US is as divided as ever, this is such an important movement.

But there was one figure missing from Sunday’s action. He was presumably watching at home, perhaps after finishing a solo workout that morning, but where is Colin Kaepernick? Where is the man who started the movement and was the first to kneel for what he believed in?

It’s all good for NFL owners to talk about unity and togetherness now, but where was that support during the summer? Kaepernick said himself that protesting for what he believed in was bigger than the sport, and it is. But right now there is a talented Quarterback who does not have a team and has potentially sacrificed his career for the cause, while there are owners and coaches who are happy to join in the movement but are scared of taking a chance on the man who started it.

What message does that send?

 

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