The NFL released a statement yesterday detailing a new set of guidelines as a response to the significant number of players who’ve chosen to kneel with the national anthem is played before games. Their response to the protests is, in a nutshell, to make a new rule: instead of mandating that players be on the field for the anthem, they’re amending the rule so that if you’re on the field, you must be standing, lest your team face fines. You also have the option to stay in the locker room.
Twitter has been absolutely lit up about this in the last 12 hours or so, and I, as a breastfeeding mom, pretty much live on Twitter and Instagram. I have some personal opinions about the NFL’s statement on this subject (that, on one hand, they’re a business and reserve the right to handle their employees in whatever way they see fit - especially when they’ve experienced a massive ratings drop in response to the protests; on the other hand, this is a group of majority White men essentially quarantining a group of majority Black men who are exercising their right to peacefully protest about a cause that’s super important, and I feel some type of way about that. As in, not good.).
Today, though, I’m more curious about people’s opinions of the protest itself. As I said, I've seen a lot of opinions on Twitter, and I wanted to flesh some of them out here in an effort to both share and learn.
Opinion #1: You make millions of dollars a year. Get off your knees and go play football. This shouldn’t have even been an issue in the first place.
Okay. Distilling that down to what the heart of the complaint is about, what I hear these folks saying is that NFL players are among the highest paid people in the country, and they need to cut the crap and do their jobs. Leave politics to the politicians.
I hear what you’re saying, and I have this to offer in response:
Most people who are paid at that level have some degree of notoriety, status, or influence. As of 2016, 70% of the NFL was made up of Black men. These guys are choosing to use the influence and power that they have on a national stage to stand up (or in this case, kneel down) for a cause they believe in. I’d say this is important and noteworthy for two reasons:
- Because, as a person who taught low-income and majority Black students, one of the things I heard constantly is “I want to be a professional athlete when I grow up.” The eyes of people who look like these guys are on them. And Black NFL players are talking to them (in addition to all of us) about the nature of what it means to be Black in this country. For a child of color, seeing people who look like you, who are taking action about a cause that directly affects you? That’s pretty powerful.
- The players who are kneeling, whatever their race, know the stakes. Colin Kaepernick is no longer playing football because of the choices he made about how he wanted to express himself. He sacrificed an NFL paycheck and exactly the status we’re talking about because of how strongly he believed this message needed to be communicated, and so are all of these other players who are following suit. That should tell us something about how much it means to them.
Opinion #2: These guys are unpatriotic and disrespectful. There are people who died to make this country what it is - who are still dying - and they have no regard for that sacrifice.
So, yeah. If you’re a person who has lost a loved one in combat, are a veteran yourself, or are the family member of a veteran, I completely get how this is especially touchy for you.
I would argue that what these players are doing is trying not to be disrespectful. “But how is kneeling not disrespectful?”
The protestors could be doing any number of things to make their opinions heard. They could be leaving the field during the anthem. They could turn their backs on the flag. THOSE things, in my opinion, would be extremely disrespectful and over the line. But instead, these players are staying on the field, respecting the song, the flag, and silently kneeling to communicate that there are people who look like them dying at the hands of police officers, who are sworn to protect them.
If you’re offended by the gesture because of service to this country, whether it’s yours or that of someone you love, I understand where you’re coming from. Living in a country where our rights and freedoms are so expansive is an enormous privilege, and hundreds of thousands of people have given their lives in that effort. I think what these guys would ask is that you try and see where they’re coming from: a peaceful, respectful attempt at saying, “Something is wrong here and not enough is being done about it. Please pay attention.” In fact, many players even put their hands over their hearts while kneeling. This isn’t about disrespecting the flag or our veterans. Ultimately, the Black protestors don’t feel like the country they live in protects them or values their lives at the same level it protects and values the lives of White people. (More on that in a second.)
I see their kneeling as a sign of respect and reverence, and almost (if you can think about it this way) as a way to “take a knee” for their own brothers and sisters who have sacrificed their lives at the hands of the police. In football, when someone is injured, players on both teams traditionally drop to one knee. The way I see it, this is like that - except on a much larger, more serious scale.
Opinion #3: This isn’t the time or place.
I think the protesters would argue that this is exactly the time and place. The eyes of the world are upon them, and whether people are tuning in or (as is more commonly the case) turning off their TV’s in response, they’ve created a national conversation.
One could certainly argue that the problem may be that there isn’t enough follow up TO that conversation. So, if you’re a protesting player, you now have a bunch of people aware of the protest against racism and police brutality, but then operating without sets of facts or data in order to form their opinions about what it is you’re doing. The idea that people are going to go out of their way to educate themselves is pretty naive, but (in my opinion) the protest is still important because it gets conversation moving.
Opinion #4: There isn’t anything to protest. What are these guys even talking about? Stop whining.
So this is uncomfortable to talk about for a lot people because issues of race bring up a lot for all of us. But this particular opinion, I’m afraid, is just incorrect. And this isn’t a bleeding-heart moment (in fact, if you’re reading this blog and have been for some time, I hope you know that I try pretty hard to bring you moderate and fair conversation); this is a “brought to you by data” moment.
According to this (very interesting) article written by Vox.com last year, racial minorities make up 37.4% of the US population, but constitute 62.7% of unarmed police killings.
62.7%. Well over half of the unarmed people police officers kill every year.
Another compelling table:
So knowing this information, if you’re a Black NFL player, you have two options: continue to go about business as usual, or do something about it. The “something about it” is up for debate here - whether it’s appropriate, respectful, and productive (I personally believe it is all three, but I understand there are differing opinions). What is NOT up for debate is the fact that in America, Black people are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by police. If you’re Black in America, you probably feel like the justice system has failed you. You are probably suspicious of police officers because you or someone you know has been profiled, pulled over, or arrested, sometimes without just cause.
(If you’re a White person reading through that and you have feelings of defensiveness, I understand that and think it would be helpful for you to read both the Vox.com article linked above and - if you like this blog and my writing - this piece I wrote two years ago about the Alton Sterling murder.)
This next bit is not entirely relevant but is relevant enough, so...I’m including it.
I’d like to bring you a moment of pop culture crossover from the delightful world of this season’s Queer Eye (which, if you haven’t watched and you read this blog, chances are you will L O V E). If you’re not familiar with Queer Eye, first of all, WHY HAVEN’T YOU BEEN WATCHING IT?!, and secondly, you can read more about it here:
There’s a moment in Episode 3, called “Dega Don’t,” wherein the only Black “Queer Eye,” Karamo Brown, is behind the wheel, driving himself and the other four cast members to the home of that episode’s straight subject. Early in the episode, police lights flash behind them, and Karamo is pulled over. His demeanor notably shifts from happy-go-lucky to tense and anxious. You can see his walls flying up. He’s asked to step out of the car, and the mood is icy. It turns out that this is a stunt the show put on because the straight guy being made over (Cory) is a police officer, and the cop pulling the Fab 5 over is the friend who nominated Cory for the show in the first place. Everyone is relieved, and the show continues.
Later in the episode, Karamo reveals to the Cory (who has Trump paraphernalia littering his basement, so the clash of beliefs is apparent from the beginning) that he was extremely nervous about interacting with the police officer who pulled him over. He said when he was asked to step out of the car, he was afraid “...this was the incident where I was going to get dragged out of the car.” They have an absolutely inspiring conversation about Black steretotypes of police officers, and police stereotypes of Black men. It is illuminating and wonderful and you should go watch it. They both leave feeling like they understand each other more and the moment moved me to tears (and you can shut up about the crying because it’s beautiful and precious and just go watch it and you’ll see).
Cory and Karamo are still in touch today, despite their differing opinions. You can read more about their relationship here, in an article titled, “The Realest Conversation Abot Police Brutality Happened on a Makeover Show.”
The reason I included this is because there is a LOT for us all to learn from one another, if we have ears to hear it. There is no room for the “all cops are racist” mentality, because that is an insane opinion to have. There is also no room for the “Black men should automatically raise suspicion” mentality, because THAT is an insane opinion to have. But opinions like these are born out of group think, lack of information, and lack of communication. In the same way, I don’t think there’s room for, “These guys are ‘sons of bitches’ and deserve to get fired,” or worse, “should not be in the country,” an opinion held by a leader whose words are often flippant, careless, and damaging (to put it very gently). There’s always more to the story, and it’s our responsibility as thinking, loving people to look more deeply into an issue - especially when, on its face, we have a problem with it.
I’ve seen a lot of my White friends expressing the opinions above. Whether you agree with the style of protest or not, this is a great opportunity for us to engage with and learn more about an issue that is obviously affecting a community to the point that the rich and famous among that demographic are willing to trade their money and power, and likely give up on a dream they’ve had since childhood, simply to shed light on this issue.
What are your thoughts? What have you read about this that has convicted or inspired you?
Let’s learn a little something from Cory and the Queer Eye guys and talk to each other.