The outrage surrounding NFL kneeling is peak American stupidity. These players are protesting injustice at the possible cost of their own careers. The good they do is a single bolt of lightning in a dark night of unbelievable hypocrisy. The loud people who complain about Kaepernick’s kneel, including the President, are not serious people, and their arguments are cynical.
Let’s begin with Trump. He’s the one who kicked off the entire ruckus last weekend. What we hear from the White House are the incoherent bellows of a befuddled, angry man reacting to what he sees on TV. Trump’s racist instincts deliver sound bites with remarkable consistency. Imagine your angry uncle canceling his cable subscription because he discovers BET is a thing, and that’s the President. As a popular Facebook meme reminds us, Trump labeled members of the Charlottesville alt-right as “Very Fine People,” but any protesting athlete is a “Son of a Bitch.” Trump isn’t a functioning adult, and can be ignored.
Second—as literally everybody has pointed out this week—the armies of America marched to defend the American people and their Constitution. Not a piece of cloth, and not its jingoistic display during sporting events. The cornerstone of the Constitution is the freedom to protest the government for a redress of grievance. Confusing ritual display with good citizenship either means you have not given the matter real thought, or you are unbelievably insincere. Do you think that when a politician wears a flag lapel, it automatically makes him a patriot?
Third: Why play the national anthem before a football game at all? What business does it have there? Football is a game. It’s a televised amusement that provides diversion, heartbreak, and cranial trauma. In between the bloodsport there’s space for advertisements. That’s it. That’s what the National Football League provides to the country. Unbelievable wealth to its tiny klatch of weird, right-wing owners, and entertainment to the rest of the country.
If you were dead serious about the flag, the anthem, the troops—I mean if you legitimately, honest-to-God believe the anthem is holy, if you think it’s exactly the same thing as the troops—why would you tarnish it by having it sung before a game? If you are actually the kind of person who takes your nationalism seriously, brandishing the flag and anthem before sports should be a cheap blasphemy, like invoking the name of God before a mud wrestling championship.
Should we have the anthem play every time we enjoy a pinball game? I’m serious. Why not? Do you play the anthem before you play Monopoly? Or eat a mixed green salad? How about before you go to work? What about at church? There’s no rhyme or reason to why and how we play the anthem, which perhaps means we should think more about what the hell we’re doing when we play that song.
The NFL has a sad, shabby history of “paid patriotism.” In September 2016, ESPN commenter Stephen Smith argued that the players “were moved to the field during the national anthem because it was seen as a marketing strategy to make the athletes look more patriotic.”
According to Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sportsnet New England, the decision to have football teams stand on the sidelines during the anthem is a recent invention, dating back to 2009. According to Snopes, it’s not entirely clear whether standing during the anthem was a coincidence or directly caused by payouts to the NFL. What is clear is the amount of money the Defense Department spent:
The practice of “paid patriotism” came to light on 30 April 2015, when Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) released a statement chiding the New Jersey Army National Guard for paying between $97,000 and $115,000 to the New York Jets for a series of promotions involving military personnel … “Contrary to the public statements made by DOD and the NFL, the majority of the contracts — 72 of the 122 contracts we analyzed — clearly show that DOD paid for patriotic tributes at professional football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer games. These paid tributes included on-field color guard, enlistment and reenlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, ceremonial first pitches? and puck drops. The National Guard paid teams for the ‘opportunity’ to sponsor military appreciation nights and to recognize its birthday.”
Friends, the NFL is a business. The flag is one more marketing strategy. Like most staged displays of nationalism, it’s a cheap, hustling advertising racket to protect people in power.
On to Kaepernick’s protest. Either you believe that police brutality and white supremacy are problems in this country, or you don’t. If you think America is a post-racist country, I invite you to tell the crowds in Charlottesville. If you agree with Kaepernick that America is unjust, then we are in concord. The only question left is: how should Kaepernick and his friends show their disagreement?
If African-Americans resist the police, the rest of America calls them rioters.
If African-Americans protest peacefully in a public space, White America will lecture them about being constructive. As Hillary Clinton told a young African-American woman who pressed her on the “super-predator” speech: “Well, why don’t you go run for something, then?”
If African-Americans who have power or position protest, they will be called “ungrateful.” They will be told “This isn’t the place.” They will be told “Show respect.”
If African-American athletes object, they will be told to stick to what they know.
In fact, according to far-right America, there is never a correct time or place for African-Americans to protest. And that’s the point. They don’t object to Kaepernick’s method, they object to him protesting at all.
Maybe the solution is to get over the simple black-and-white view of the world where nation and troops and obedience are wrapped up together at a game. Maybe we should take Colin seriously. Perhaps Kaepernick’s haters, including the President, should stop demanding empty shows of love and respect, and act worthy of love and respect. Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.