Over the course of the last year, fans of football have become very familiar with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick after he began kneeling while the national anthem was played at his team’s games.
From 2009 onwards, it’s been a tradition for NFL players to stand on the field with their right hand on their heart at all games to honor fallen U.S. soldiers and police officers. In fact, the federal Department of Defense (DoD) actually paid some teams between the years of 2012 and 2015 to make sure their players were on the field and facing the American flag for this patriotic display, often when specific musical or other performing artists were also present. Some teams combined the anthem playing with the honoring of specific soldiers or military homecoming ceremonies. But generally, the solemn pose with one’s hand over their heart was a voluntary activity, and so, for this reason, Kaepernick’s refusal to do the same stood out all the more as time went on.
Within the first week of the regular 2016 NFL season, 11 other players joined Kaepernick’s protest, with many more joining in the weeks that followed. Ironically, as Kaepernick started to draw more and more media coverage, negative attention from team supporters and those in the political world increased, and Kaepernick was forced on the defensive. He was voted the most disliked NFL player by fans, and some even went so far as to post YouTube clips of themselves burning replicas of his jersey. NFL MVP Boomer Esiason labeled Kaepernick “an embarrassment,” while an unidentified NFL executive was quoted as saying Kaepernick was “a traitor” to his team and his country.
The NFL saw television ratings fall for its 2016 season, and when questioned about this drop, football fans overwhelmingly pointed to the anthem protests as a reason for it. One fan tweeted to Yahoo Sports, “I can tell you why [ratings are down] — it’s because diehard fans like me have been insulted by the owners and the NFL allowing these players to kneel or sit during the national anthem. TOTAL DISRESPECT to America. WE are protesting. I have not watched a game this year yet.”
Another fan wrote, “When the players stop disrespecting this nation and our flag, then I might start watching games again.”
Still another tweeted, “You can try and hide what happened. We have reduced watching the NFL as long as they support the disrespect to our flag. Just tell the NFL America is taking a knee.”
The presidential election last year certainly took some people’s attention away from the sport, but Republican candidate Donald Trump didn’t let the anthem protests go unnoticed. “[Viewership of] the NFL is way down,” he pointed out at a campaign rally. “Honestly, we’ve taken a lot of people away from the NFL. [But] the other reason is [Colin] Kaepernick.”
While attention to Kaepernick grew, his team restructured his contract, and he eventually chose to opt out of it for 2017, making him a free agent. But Kaepernick subsequently found during the 2017 off-season and training periods that no team wanted to sign him. The Miami Dolphins preferred taking former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler out of retirement rather than bringing Kaepernick onboard, and a possible shot with the Baltimore Ravens faded after Kaepernick’s girlfriend compared Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to a slave owner on Twitter.
Nevertheless, even with Kaepernick out of the game for 2017, the protests continued, with Cleveland Browns tight end Seth DeValve dropping to one knee in a preseason game on August 21 along with a dozen of his teammates. As a counter-protest, members of the Cleveland police and paramedics unions boycotted the game’s national anthem ceremony.
President Trump again weighed in on the matter on September 22, asking rhetorically at a rally in Alabama, “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, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’? You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it, [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
Trump encouraged the crowd to simply leave games if they are unhappy with players’ protests. “When people like yourselves turn on television, and you see those people taking the knee when they’re playing our great national anthem. The only thing you could do better is, if you see it — even if it’s just one player — leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop — just pick up, and leave. Pick up, and leave… Not the same game anymore, anyway.”
Trump later called the protests “a total disrespect of our heritage” and tweeted, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our great American flag (or country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do.”
On the Sunday after Trump’s statements, more than 200 NFL players throughout the league protested during the anthem, with all members of the Pittsburgh Steelers except Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva refusing to leave the locker room while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
In the days leading up to and following Trump’s statements, athletes in other sports also took to imitating Kaepernick’s actions, including in soccer, baseball, basketball and college volleyball.
Even in the political world, members of Congress have repeated the act on the floor of the House of Representatives — Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin each enacted the gesture, while on the other side of the issue, in the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opined that the athletic protests were “dumb and disrespectful,” saying that the players could disrespect the anthem “if they want to be stupid.”
On September 27, Trump weighed in once again in a White House press conference, saying, “I think The NFL is in a box; the only thing that is doing well for The NFL is the pre-game… They can’t have people disrespecting the national anthem. The NFL has to change, or their business is going to go to hell.”
It’s possible Trump’s words (or others’) are having an effect, as there are now reports that on Sunday, October 1, the entirety of the New England Patriots will stand during the anthem and that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has promised the media that his team, too, will stand. Trump responded to this latter report, saying, “Jerry is a winner who knows how to get things done.”
Of course, if an observer reflects on all of these demonstrations of solidarity, one quickly realizes that as a protest, taking to one knee only works if it’s done by a minority of players — if every player in the league did it at every game, it would no longer be looked at as an insurrection; instead of being called a “protest,” it would simply become standard practice. Perhaps NFL owners can require “kneeling to the flag” while the national anthem plays as a mandatory patriotic gesture. At that point, the only act of rebellion would then be to stand — hardly a dramatic gesture.
As with the tattoos now adorning seemingly every player’s arms and shoulders, this ritual that was once limited to a minority group would be in danger of losing its significance if it’s ultimately pursued by a majority of the sport’s players. And then, Colin Kaepernick — if he does finally return to the game — would have to find something new to do.