The NFL’s Flag-Kneeling Quagmire is an Indictment of Our Moral Compass
O say can you see. In a dimwitted and abhorrent way that spits in the face of its employees and reignites false perceptions of the #TakeAKnee protests, the NFL has put forth its most recent effort to prevent players from kneeling to draw attention to racial injustice during the national anthem. It’s the latest development in a story that began when Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid knelt during the anthem in 2016 as a demonstration to spur criminal justice reform, which drew immediate outrage. This change in policy arrives shortly after the Seattle Seahawks postponed an April workout for the former 49ers quarterback — and signed Stephen Morris the day after — after Kaepernick declined to stop kneeling during the national anthem next season. The revised code, approved on Wednesday by league owners, mandates all players and team personnel on the field to “stand and show respect for the anthem” or else they will fines and some subsequent brush with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Clubs can develop their own rules, but those rules must consider the base of the structure: If you’re on the field, you will hew to the main idea, which is NO KNEELING.
Following the rule’s passage, NFL players and staffers will have two options before each game: They can stand as the anthem is played or remain in the locker room during the national anthem — a reversal of a rule implemented in 2009 mandating that players be on the field. If there’s one universal truth about free speech, it’s most effective when no one else can hear it. The only thing less disruptive than silently crouching on one knee is lying down in a locker room and gently whispering sweet nothings about feeling oppressed to the carpet. Although, it’s no surprise that a league that polices how high players wear their socks is now limiting how they can express their convictions. Indeed, if there is any group of people who can unite and collaborate in a valiant effort to triage America’s racial wounds, it’s a room full of old, wealthy white men.
In Goodell’s typical pompous Lord Tywin Lannister response, the second-most hated orange man in America encapsulated the NFL management’s 1950s Father Knows Best soundstage fantasy that promotes simplistic notions about race and patriotism:
“We believe today’s decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it — and on our fans who enjoy it. … The efforts by many of our players sparked awareness and action around issues of social justice that must be addressed. It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.”
Translation: We think social justice is neat, but the optics of this situation are terrible because some field hands got unruly and we don’t want to piss off the cranks in our fan base. The NFL Players Association was more succinct: “The NFL chose not to consult the union in the development of this new ‘policy.’”
Leaked audio of an NFL meeting last month showed the league and team owners were primarily concerned with how this affects their appearance. Ultimately, they fear our boorish president, who became the nation’s leading voice against peaceful pregame protests, and at a rally last September, referred to any player who “disrespects our flag” as a “son of a bitch” and suggested that NFL owners should cut them. So they effectively transformed voluntary participation in a pregame ceremony into compulsory patriotism, a clear effort to make a once-fading controversy disappear. As The Ringer’s Claire McNear writes:
“There are two explanations for this baffling decision. One: The NFL’s decision-makers truly are bothered by the protest. Or two: They are collectively some of the most profound morons we’ve ever had the misfortune of having our news cycles dictated by.”
Prior to this week, teams had no explicit basis to fire players who kneel during the anthem, so the NFL invented one. Now, players who don’t “stand and show respect for the anthem” will cost their team money, thereby giving owners the pretense to fire (or decline to hire) those who “disrespect the flag.” This could prevent players from appealing or filing grievances as they could for personal fines, as reported by Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer. However, Harvard labor law professor Benjamin Sachs argues this new policy will face legal challenges because the NFL enacted this rule without “discussing the change with the union”; made it so “any player who takes the field and takes a knee is protesting an employer rule”; and “the president of the United States has been actively involved in the league’s decision-making process.”
Ironically enough, Colin Kaeprernick doesn’t have a job because he’s protesting the very reason why he doesn’t have a job. The specific issue he’s protesting concerns systemic racial injustice — the International Slave Trade, Middle Passage, the institution of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Mandatory Minimums, the War on Drugs, police brutality — all of which have created racial imbalances in social outcomes. NFL ownership is almost exclusively comprised of these powerful Citizen Kane types, isolated from contemporary American culture by wealth and self-importance. Unless you think African-Americans are intrinsically inferior in earning money, the NFL’s almost-exclusively white ownership club is a symptom of the apartheid-style justice in America. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes:
“In their Pleasantville fantasy, athletes still ‘Shut up and dribble’ (or, in their case, ‘Shut up and tackle’). That’s because the majority of those athletes who speak up or kneel down in the real world are people of color calling attention to profound life-and-death inequities across the country, daily humiliating and life-threatening inequities that most these owners never have to face and therefore have no personal stake in.”
Average black net worth has always been lower than white net worth, and there were massive structural obstacles to the black accumulation of wealth well into the 20th century. Ta-Nehisi Coates illustrates the lasting impact of discriminatory housing policies. Family wealth is passed down inter-generationally, and since black people were enslaved for 246 years and Jim Crow was in operation during the time of people who are still alive, perhaps the average white family having $13 of wealth for every $1 of wealth held by a black family could have some basis in historical components. Or, more related to Kaepernick’s message, a white man with a criminal record is far more likely to receive a job callback than a black man without a criminal record.
When Curt Flood challenged the MLB’s reserve clause, he sacrificed his career at the altar of labor relations so other players could get paid. The NFL’s all-but-official omerta on the hiring of Kaepernick has long since exited its plausible deniability stage. If he was demanding a starting gig, the owners’ slow-motion blackballing would be easy enough to conceal, as he was a bubble starter who would’ve necessitated a coach to reconfigure their offense around his specific skill set. But in a league that witnessed the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nathan Peterman, Tom Savage, and Scott Tolzien under center in 2017, the signal-caller who helped lead the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII is at least qualified to occupy one of NFL’s 64 starting or backup quarterback jobs. Eric Reid, a former Pro-Bowl safety and one of the first players to join in on the national anthem protest, remains a free agent. Given that the NFL has thirty-two teams, Kaepernick was coming off a solid season, and only a couple dozen people can capably play football’s most important position at the highest level, it remains hard to understand his unemployment as anything but the result of the understated kneeling he began staging on sidelines in 2016.
Professional football’s patriotism-as-branding is as cynical as it is shrewd, a bit of weatherproofing that insists the NFL is a vital part of the American experience — reclining in your Lazy Boy, drinking a Bud Lite, tuning into Sunday Night Football, and denying that racism still permeates our everyday life. Back in 2016, according to Gallup, over 70 percent of NFL fans objected to Kaepernick’s protest, and a more recent survey found that one-third of NFL fans boycotted the league this past year. Such is life in modern America, where the crudest form of “political correctness” is magnified under the hypocrisy of white fragility: Protesting racial injustice is more offensive than instances of racial injustice. It begs the question of whether the outrage is over the players kneeling or the reason why they’re kneeling.
The totalizing motif of this unfolding quandary is its indictment of American society writ large; we direct our outrage toward the people most marginalized by late-stage Star-Spangled Tremendousness, rather than the gatekeepers who maintain its obstacles. Though obviously on a different societal level, it’s hard not to hear echoes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
What does this say about NFL fans, who stick around Sunday after Sunday in the wake of Greg Hardy throwing his then-girlfriend against a bathroom wall, choking her, and threatening her life during a domestic abuse incident; or Matt Prater attempting to flee the scene of an accident before he was charged with a DUI; or Adrian Peterson hitting his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, leaving “visible swelling, marks and cuts” on his ankles, limbs, back, buttocks and genitals; or Ray Rice delivering a Tyson-esque knockout punch to his then-fiancee’s face — but will draw the line across a benign act of indignation?
What does this say about Trump supporters, donning their MAGA hats and all the illusory American exceptionalism it entails, who voted for and continue to support a five-time draft-dodger who denigrated John McCain’s service because he was a prisoner of war; who belittled the Gold Star family of a slain Muslim soldier because they denounced him at the 2016 Democratic National Convention; who had to be shamed by reporters into following through on a six-months-delayed promise of donating to veterans groups; who seeks to delegitimize the bravery and valor of an estimated 2,000–11,000 transgender troops by barring them from serving in the military; who offered a moral pass to neo-Nazi rioters at Charlottesville who represent the same vile ideology our World War II veterans defeated — but will direct their selective outrage toward a man who consulted a veteran to craft his protest in a way that respects those who have sacrificed their lives for their nation?
What does this say about the crowd of self-appointed free speech warriors, cocooned in a simulation of invented oppression, who have made preserving the First Amendment their cause célèbre, who flog “political correctness” when it results in the demonetization of YouTube videos; when Milo Yiannopoulos is disinvited from delivering a Mercer-funded “feminism is cancer” speech on college campuses; when a Google employee is fired for sending an internal memo questioning the company’s diversity initiatives — but remain silent over a black NFL athlete who is denied employment, partially because our president used his bully pulpit to urge a private corporation to get protesters “off the field”?
What does this say about our media, who, in response to a White House Correspondent’s Dinner “smokey eye” joke, rushed to the defense of a Press Secretary who normalizes a president who reflexively undermines their credibility; who drew a false equivalency between a candidate who called out the “deplorable” elements of her opponent’s campaign and the candidate who spurred and capitalized on those very same elements — but will overshadow Kaepernick’s $1 million donation to various community organizations and other acts of charity and focus on the superficial tabloid fodder surrounding his protest?
You can protest racism and still love America, just like you can hate wife beaters and still tune into the NFL each Sunday.
The NFL owners insist on being the self-appointed guardians of America’s mythological vision of itself. Their anachronistic fantasies aren’t just a misguided attempt to pander to what they think their traditionalist fans want; they are spoon-feeding the notion that their most deeply felt beliefs about their fellow citizens are morally righteous. We must live in their Disneyland, or else. First Amendment rights may not extend to the workplace, but the owners are essentially forcing their employees to parrot their, and Donald Trump’s, preferred political speech. In response to their safe space being violated, conservatives will often say, “politics needs to stay out of sports,” yet NFL pregame rituals are miliary-sponsored grandiose displays of nationalism featuring Blake Shelton singing “If Jesus was a Troop” while B-52s streak overhead. This is no small irony, of course; the pointed symbolism of Kaepernick’s protests and the strangeness of seeing a player in the most popular and theatrically authority-positive league that honks Maximum America in spades, when taken together, is the most flubby of NFL spectacles: a slow-rolling blackball against Kaepernick as a thought criminal.
White Americans remain politically dominant enough to shape media coverage in a way that often places African-American prerogatives in a bind. If a black person marches in the streets, they’re told they’re a thug. If they protest, they’re told it’s a riot. If they bend down on one knee, they’re told they’re disrespecting America. This ad nauseam debate over “free speech” is becoming more obviously selective and self-serving by the issue, and it should make any decent soul pulsate with detestation. This whole controversy isn’t borne out of a principled concern for our veterans, but rather the latest petty slap fight within the larger context of a lame culture war with no end in sight, where Four-Star Provocateur Donald Trump successfully leveraged another political resentment for his own self-aggrandizement, a fine display of all the snowflakery and microaggressions that surrounds MAGA’s idea of patriotic correctness.
This conservative brand of “political correctness” enforces norms around patriotic symbols and protest and authority and conflates freedom with a bumper sticker kind of flag-waiving. In this regard, it’s far more convenient to enforce genuflection guidelines around the national anthem than it is to acknowledge and deal with police discrimination and racial injustices. When we have a president who allowed neo-Nazi protests to slide, but doesn’t extend that same kind of compassion and nuanced thinking to that “son of a bitch” NFL player, it kind of proves the flag kneelers’ point, doesn’t it?