When I played football as a young lad, anytime our coaches wanted to have a serious talk with us, they would say, “Take a knee.” If we leaned too far back on our ankles or if we sat down on our butts, they’d give us a look to let us know we needed to straighten our backs and give them our full, respectful attention.
Today, I’d like to ask you to take a knee.
As pretty much everybody knows by now, there’s quite the controversy going on around the decision of dozens of professional athletes to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. They are following the lead of Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who explained in a statement to the NFL that he “would not stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
He made the decision in August 2016 and followed through on his promise throughout the rest of the year. Each week, more and more athletes followed his lead, with the story seeming to come to a head this weekend when President Trump decided to weigh in on the controversy, saying during a political rally that NFL owners whose players disrespect the flag should “get that son of a bitch off the field right now; he’s fired!” Trump followed his statement with a series of tweets attacking the players for “disrespect[ing] our Great American Flag (or Country).”
In response, almost the entire NFL demonstrated their support for Kaepernick and the other kneeling players in a variety of ways. One team stayed in the locker room during the anthem; others locked arms to show their solidarity against Trump’s attacks; and still others kneeled for the first time. Owners from around the league, as well as the Commissioner of the NFL, put out statements supporting the players’ right to demonstrate during the anthem.
But in all of the controversy, several things seem to have been lost.
First, we must note that while Kaepernick began the protest movement by sitting on the bench during the anthem, he and the others who had joined him shifted their demonstration from sitting to kneeling. One of the players, Eric Reid, explained that, “after hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit…because [kneeling] is a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
The form of their protest — kneeling during the playing of the national anthem — is meant to convey two things: respect for those who have defended our country and condemnation for a system that oppresses people of color.
Yet, the controversy that has erupted from their demonstration is not about whether America does or does not oppress people of color. Instead, it’s about what some people see as the athletes’ disrespect for the flag.
The critics are not angry because of the players’ disrespect for the cloth, but because they see the demonstrations as disrespect for the values they believe the cloth represents. As one commentator wrote on Facebook, “That flag stands for FREEDOM!” Another wrote on Fox News that the flag is “an eternal reminder of how blessed we are to be Americans.” When Kaepernick and the others take a knee in front of the flag, these commentators and others see the players as disrespecting the very idea of freedom and the very concept of America.
What’s more, they see it as disrespect for the men and women who have fought for the country, the service members who volunteered to defend the values they believe the country represents. According to these critics, when the athletes refuse to stand for the anthem, they are disrespecting the memory of those fine men and women.
If all that were true, their anger would be as righteous as they believe it is.
But the fact that the players actively sought out the advice of a veteran before conducting the demonstrations shows how incorrect that interpretation is, as does the fact that thousands of veterans across the country have come out in support of the athletes’ efforts.
The entire demonstration has nothing to do with the flag or the anthem or the veterans, and allowing it to be reframed that way is to allow oneself to be manipulated by those who benefit from dividing the people of this great country.
This is not a “love it or leave it” situation. As the great James Baldwin once wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
The message of those athletes who are kneeling is that America is “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
You can agree or disagree with that assertion. You can discuss it with your family, friends, and colleagues. You can keep an open mind and research it on the Internet. But what you shouldn’t do is allow the media to manipulate you into ignoring it.
It’s not about the flag. It’s not about the knee. It’s only ever been about our need to reflect on the state of our society. The powers that be don’t want you to think about that. Don’t be foolish enough to fall for it.