It started as a one-man protest during the 2016 NFL season. Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, refused to stand during the National Anthem to make a point about what he saw as racial injustice in America.
A few other players joined the protest, but only a few. Then, at a political rally in Alabama last month, out of nowhere, President Trump decided to pour gasoline on the bonfire. He called players who kneel during the anthem SOBs and said they should be fired. The battle lines were drawn.
And when the NFL decided a few days ago to continue to let players “take a knee” during the anthem without also taking a penalty, the president tweeted: “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!”
Now, even a football field on a Sunday afternoon is a political war zone. More polarization is just what we need in America, right?
None of this, of course, is good for the NFL’s business. Over the first six weeks of the season, TV ratings were down 7.5 percent over last year – and down 18.7 percent over 2015 (which, the NFL blames on competition from the presidential race). Some fans are staying home, leaving seats empty; some are boycotting NFL merchandise.
After meeting with players and league executives, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters, “We believe everyone should stand for the national anthem — that’s an important part of our policy. It’s also an important part of our game that we all take great pride in. And it’s also important for us to honor our flag and our country, and we think our fans expect us to do that. So that is something we continue to focus on this morning but really talking a lot about the opportunity that exists for our players to try to go and really make a difference in our communities in a positive way.”
But if NFL players really want to make a difference in their communities in a positive way, they might take a knee to protest the epidemic of fatherlessness in black America. More than 70 percent of African American babies are born out of wedlock, a staggering number that often leads to poverty and its many attendant problems.
Or they might take a knee to protest the senseless carnage we see in places like Chicago, where young black men with guns are doing much more damage to other young black men than a relatively few bad cops have done.
And what if players took a knee to make a statement about black kids who drop out of high school and then have little hope for success in a country that puts a premium on education?
George Orwell said that, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Apparently the same is true about protests in the NFL.
It would take a profile in courage to take a knee to protest dysfunctional behavior – behavior that is doing more to oppress black people in America than white racism.
It won’t happen. If you’re in the NFL and you take a knee to protest bad cops or what you see as a racist criminal justice system, liberals – both in and out of the media – will turn you into an American folk hero. If you’re a black athlete who takes a knee to protest destructive behavior, there’s a good chance they’ll turn you into an Uncle Tom.
The NFL says players “should” stand for the national anthem but won’t impose a rule against taking a knee. The league is trying to thread the proverbial needle: give the protesting players what they want without further alienating the fans.
In football, that’s what they call a Hail Mary.