By: Ryan Kirby, Columnist
More than two years later, Americans are still debating the controversial decision of NFL players to kneel during the National Anthem. Nike announced that they would partner with Colin Kaepernick as part of their Just Do It campaign, and this has sparked renewed debate over the kneeling protest. Kaepernick began his protest in August of 2016 and since then more than 200 NFL players have joined.
Originally Kaepernick’s protest began with him sitting on the bench during the Anthem, but a discussion with Nate Boyer, former 49er and Green Beret, convinced him to kneel rather than sit. Boyer met with Kaepernick and convinced him to take a knee by pointing out that, “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.” Kaepernick changed his protest to make his message clearer and protest in a way that respects the military.
So, what are NFL players protesting when they kneel? I will let Kaepernick speak for himself. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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.” Kaepernick is protesting racial injustice, NOT the U.S. military.
I believe context is also important to understand why Kaepernick chose to protest. African-Americans are over-represented in the prison population while receiving longer sentences for the same crime as whites, and being arrested at three times the rate for illegal drug use, despite being equally likely to use drugs compared to whites. Kaepernick also began his protests a month after the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police officers.
Clearly, not everyone has agreed with Kaepernick’s decision to protest during the National Anthem. The predominant argument is that it disrespects America and our nation’s military. Not only is this logic fundamentally flawed, but it willfully ignores the issue the players are trying to bring attention to.
Rather than listen or attempt to understand the perspective of the athletes, many have chosen to close their minds and wrap themselves in a form of false patriotism.
As stated earlier, the protests are not about the military and their methods were even changed after exchanging ideas with a veteran. I cannot speak to what reasons every brave member of our military chose to enlist, but what I can speak to is the purpose of our military. The military Oath of Enlistment states “I, ____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States…” which includes the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Is it not ironic to be so deeply upset by a form of peaceful protest, far less divisive than flag burning that has been ruled a form of political speech by the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson (1989), that has been adapted to respect the sacrifices of soldiers
Nike has chosen to place their bet on Kaepernick and align themselves on the right side of history. The ad sparked widespread outrage among conservatives as many chose to burn Nike clothes (if you are going to protest regardless of my argument, please donate rather than burning it) and launch a boycott. Although conservative plans to boycott caused a 3 percent drop in Nike stock (which have since stabilized), online sales increased 31 percent. It feels safe to say that initial signs indicate that the business decision has worked out for Nike.
It is also important to understand that protests are supposed to be uncomfortable, especially to the members who are benefitting from the status quo. If you do not care enough to listen to the issue the protesters care about, then why should they care if their peaceful protest upsets you? NFL players are bringing attention to issues of systemic racism and those who benefit from that system, even if they are not actively encouraging it, are the ones who are most upset by the protests. The players who choose to protest are choosing to use their platform to bring attention to a major issue in society and the fact that this conversation continues two years later is a mark of success. Instead of feeding racial divides and attacking NFL players for using their voices peacefully, I encourage you to work towards solving the very serious issues they seek to address.