The world has been a pretty turbulent place these last few weeks. And yet, despite the disasters – both natural and manmade – that have characterized this past month, one story continues to receive an outsized amount of coverage. Indeed, NFL players kneeling for an anthem has received more attention in many circles than some of the most shocking news events of recent memory.
By now, the details of this story are all too familiar. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, took a knee for the national anthem, in protest against the treatment of people of color in the United States. He subsequently lost his job, hundreds of others picked up where he left off and the story was reignited once more when our own president chose to interject with a series of controversial tweets denouncing the players’ actions.
The entire story has been something of a blight on our nation’s collective sense of pride. Commentators on both sides of the issue have managed to twist the story beyond its origins as a method of black protest into something much more sinister and much less consequential – a political football that’s been punted all the way to the “Twitter fingers” of our commander-in-chief. In doing so, the ever-opportunistic national media has managed to sully the story to such an extent that little of the conversation now centers around the point of the protest itself, having long ago splintered into one of patriotism, partisanship and our president.
One of the great ironies and unfortunate side effects of this splintering has been that the level of productive discourse regarding the topic has sunk to a virtual nadir. No longer do we discuss the place of black men in modern America. Instead, we decide to listen to Skip Bayless’ screeching about Kaepernick’s football abilities, MSNBC’s near constant moaning about Trump and Facebook pundits’ punctuation-free rants on those “ungr8ful flag burning terrorists.”
These latter subjects are, of course, easier to approach than the bigger questions at play. They offer easy, mindless, knee-jerk reactions that don’t require viewers to invest any level of critical thought into their own consumption. This perhaps shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given that modern media is undeniably experiencing a shift towards those same hot takes and mindless instances of click-garnering. But even despite its predictability, there is still something depressing about just how pathetic coverage of these athlete-activists has become.
One of the most obvious effects of the absolute loss of journalistic integrity regarding this particular story has been the shifting of terms upon which its debate is staged. In the early days of the protest, when Kaepernick was still employed and his message bore a sense of edgy originality, the media and its pundits at least deigned to discuss the cause he was protesting. This was uncomfortable – especially given its placement in the realm of sports, whose relationship with politics has traditionally been awkward at best – but nonetheless, some degree of positive conversations still occurred. We actually managed to bring up those previously untouchable topics of police violence, racism and the place of politics in sports. But now, the conversation has changed. Rather than actually talking about the issues at the heart of the matter, the topic has flipped towards discussing “unity” and “patriotism” in their vaguest forms.
Almost without exception, those who seek to detract from these athlete-activists do so not on the basis of what’s being protested but rather on the method of that protest. I would certainly argue, however, that for the vast majority of these people, their true issue lies with those causes that Kaepernick and friends are trying to forward. I have yet to hear of a single person who believes Kaepernick’s protest is “anti-American” but who still supports Black Lives Matter, black liberation and the like.
This may seem fairly obvious, but it goes to show that this is not an issue of patriotism, no matter how hard some outlets may have tried to portray it as such. Those who decry Kaepernick and his fellow protestors are almost never in opposition to the action itself, but rather the cause for which they’re fighting, whether they choose to admit it or not. Now, whether you agree or disagree with Kaepernick’s stances on police brutality, Black Lives Matter, etc. is a different discussion entirely. However, to do so behind the veil of patriotism is both counterproductive and disingenuous. It does nothing other than limit productive discourse and further widen the chasm between two already polarized sides.
To set the record straight, this was, originally at least, not a discussion of patriotism. Colin Kaepernick didn’t get on one knee during the anthem to display his lack of reverence for the American flag or to involve a president who was not yet in office. He did so to protest the treatment of black people in America, but recent coverage has distorted this original vision beyond recognition.
Although there are exceptions, the majority of the NFL protesters have carried out their cause with a distinct air of dignity. As an isolated act, kneeling is one of the more theatrical displays of reverence in the arsenal of human interactions. And although it may not be a traditional response to the playing of the national anthem, it’s difficult to envision a more dignified manner of protesting the injustices that said flag and hymn may or may not represent, depending on your point of view. To therefore claim that the problem here is a lack of respect or patriotism is a simple lie, bought into by so many people that the media itself can propagate it as truth.
As it so often tends to do, the media’s heavy-handed coverage of the Kaepernick protest saga has only served to dilute the true ideas at play. In the name of provoking argument and pandering to the polarized, our nation’s collective journalism-industrial complex has managed to legitimize ridiculous ideas and effectively mask those that are genuinely worthy of discussion. In some senses, the Kaepernick saga has served as a microcosm of the general direction journalism has taken since the proliferation of social media (hint: It’s not a good one). Athlete-activists have a cause worth discussing, and regardless of whether or not you agree with it, we collectively owe them the small favor of confronting these ideas head-on.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.