During the 2016 NFL Preseason, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick caused a stir by refusing to stand for the national anthem in order to protest police violence against African Americans. Kaepernick’s decision – first to sit and then to kneel during the anthem – brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the NFL, a league that wraps its games in the Red, White and Blue. In the following exchange, fans and scholars Andrew Moore and Ross Bullen discuss how Kaepernick’s protest reveals the tension in American football: a game played predominantly by black athletes and watched by a mostly white, conservative fan base.
Andrew Moore: It strikes me that Black Lives Matter has been really effective at interrupting the “customary” or “automatic” flow of events. The movement has become very good at creating time and space in which to talk about racism and police violence. Kaepernick’s protest seems to be another example of that. It was a simple gesture, but has proved remarkably effective. It’s gotten tremendous airplay. I’m curious how much traction he’ll be able to get.
Ross Bullen: Kaepernick is a smart, thoughtful guy, and even a quick skim of his Twitter feed will tell you what you need to know about his politics. It’s clear, though, that Kaepernick’s image with fans, players, coaches, GMs, and the media has been altered forever. On the whole, I think people have been supportive of Kaepernick, although a lot of that comes in the form of wishy-washy “well he has a right to do it” or “I agree with the message but not the method” comments (including some typically gnomic ruminations from former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh). But I think a lot of people, myself included, strongly agree with what Kaepernick is doing and saying, and this has led to a real boost in his popularity. He currently has the best-selling jersey in the NFL, which is pretty rare for a backup quarterback.
AM: It is amazing to me that this happened on a team coached by Chip Kelly. Kelly coached the Philadelphia Eagles from 2013-2015, until he was suddenly terminated before the final game of the 2015 season. Throughout his tenure there was a persistent problem with race. Multiple players and former assistant coaches, including LeSean McCoy, Brandon Boykin, and Tra Thomas suggested Kelly was uncomfortable with black players. They often stopped short of calling him racist, but all suggested there was a “culture” problem in the Eagles locker room.
Early in Kelly’s tenure as coach, a white wide receiver named Riley Cooper was caught on video shouting the “n-word” on camera. Cooper was suspended by the team for literally a few days and then he was back. Despite video evidence of racist language, he barely received a slap on the wrist. I think the decision to go easy on Cooper’s racist outburst poisoned the well in Philadelphia. Kelly lost respect in the locker room after that incident.
I think of that incident almost as a “fable” about white complicity in racism. Kelly didn’t do enough as a coach to address Cooper’s offense. That lack of action made an impression on the people in that locker room. Kelly was trying to defuse the tension, and instead it felt like something was being swept under the rug.
RB: Speaking of complicity by consent, it’s interesting to see how criticisms of Kaepernick are almost exclusively originating from rich white guys who’ve made a lot of money playing football in America. This demonstrates both faulty reasoning and the way that white privilege encourages complicity in a racist society. For example, there is the straw man argument, which has been made by former 49ers lineman Alex Boone and others, that Kaepernick is disrespecting the military, when he has been quite clear that his protest is about police brutality. Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to extend the logic of Kaepernick’s protest to include U.S. military imperialism as well, but that’s not what he’s doing. It’s disingenuous for his critics to claim that he is. In fact, after speaking with former Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick changed his protest from sitting to kneeling during the anthem. Likewise, the argument that Kaepernick shouldn’t be using his place on the NFL stage to talk about this is tantamount to suggesting that he shouldn’t do anything at all. Obviously the fact that he’s famous and on television is the whole reason why his protest is so effective. It will be interesting to see if athletes from other sports leagues will join Kaepernick’s protest (Megan Rapinoe of the National Women’s Soccer League Seattle Reign FC has already done so). This has the potential to become a massive movement in North American sports culture.
It’s also worth pointing out that Kaepernick is engaged in lots of behind-the-scenes activism as well (indeed, his protest went unnoticed for the first two preseason games and Kaepernick didn’t say anything about it). For instance, Kaepernick is donating the first $1 million he makes this year to social justice causes. He’s also donating the extra royalties he’s getting from jersey sales. It’s tough to imagine someone taking a more effective and thoughtful stance, but in the highly conservative world of American professional football, Kaepernick is basically being cast as a wantonly disrespectful ideologue.
AM: Watching all of this unfold, I’ve been reminded of Martin Luther King’s claim in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that direct action is supposed to create “tension” in the community. He speaks directly to white citizens who agree in principle that there is a race problem in America but want things to be resolved peacefully and, I think, comfortably. He exposes how people in privileged positions are fine with change, so long as it doesn’t inconvenience them.
I would say that these demonstrations we’re seeing now create just the kind of tension King was talking about. They disrupt the patriotic spectacle at the start of every game – a deliberate appeal to political unity right before two teams compete against each other – and they expose certain cracks and gaps in the regime.
RB: There has been a range of responses, with some players kneeling during the anthem and others standing with a raised fist. Actions like this preserve the productive tension you mentioned above, which forces white fans who would rather ignore the reality of racial injustice in the U.S. to pay attention, even if only for a few minutes. You mentioned Martin Luther King; I was reminded of Frederick Douglass and his powerful speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass reminded his white audience that patriotic talk about “freedom” and “liberty” was meaningless in a society where African Americans could be bought and sold as chattel. Kaepernick’s protest is different, of course, but it has a similar intent: to highlight the ways that some Americans enjoy considerably greater “freedoms” than others.
Some player responses, though, have been less effective and rightly criticized. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, chose to stand with their arms interlocked as a “demonstration of unity,” which some critics have said was both meaningless and counterproductive. By effectively saying nothing, the Seahawks players actually detracted from Kaepernick’s message by drifting into “All Lives Matter” territory.
AM: I think you’re right. A gesture like that potentially dulls the edge of the protest. To me, that’s the real challenge for Kaepernick and company. For example, the first Sunday of the season fell on September 11 this year. It was a bit surreal to see the former players and coaches who populate the pregame shows affirm the connection over and over again: America is football, and football is America. The talking heads described football’s role in “healing” and “uniting” the country. I don’t even dispute that. I think football is a powerful site of national mythmaking, and that’s why it’s also such an incredibly powerful site of political discourse. But this will also make it challenging to sustain a conversation about racial injustice. As you noted earlier, the NFL is characteristically conservative.
To me, the real challenge for Kaepernick and his fellow protestors will be to continue to command the media’s attention as the season progresses. The NFL is so masterful at creating narratives and every week brings a new slate of games and a huge amount of “raw material” from which to craft those narratives. I think the League probably thinks it can just wait this out, and once Tom Brady comes back from his suspension or a plucky underdog wins four games in a row the country will be ready to move on from Kaepernick.
RB: The great thing about Kaepernick’s gesture is that it’s really not just about him anymore. Now that this is a multi-team, multi-player protest, it can be separated from Kaepernick himself, his role on the 49ers, etc. So when someone like Trent Dilfer says that Kaepernick has created “friction” within the locker room, it feels off-target not just because it’s both untrue and offensive, but also because Kaepernick’s protest is not just about what one player has decided to do. Black Lives Matter activists are very good at keeping their message about police brutality in the spotlight. I strongly suspect that Kaepernick – and the players who have joined him – will do the same with their protests, even if the NFL news cycle tries to move on to other stories.
Sixty-eight percent of players in the NFL are African American. It only makes sense that the wider Black Lives Matter movement is making its presence felt through player protests. Football is the most popular sport in the U.S., and a large number of NFL fans are certainly hostile to suggestions that America is anything less than perfect. Anybody who has seen an NFL game in person can attest that a significant amount of down time (TV timeouts, halftime, etc.) is spent glorifying the U.S. military and celebrating American patriotism. In other words, there is a tension brewing between many of the people who pay to see football and most of the people who play it. The larger significance of Kaepernick’s protest is yet to be seen, but if protests like his continue to apply pressure to the tension between black players and a largely white, largely conservative fan base, something has to give. At the very least, it is impossible to imagine the NFL continuing as if it’s business as usual while, as Kaepernick says, ““there are bodies in the street.”
Ross Bullen teaches American literature and cultural studies at OCAD University in Toronto. He’s on Twitter at @BullenRoss.
Andrew Moore teaches literature and political philosophy at St Thomas University in New Brunswick. He tweets from @andrewjmoore.