BY MAX ROTHSCHILD
The 2017 N.F.L. season has been unlike any other, but not because of the games being played. Instead, the central story of the season has been the players’ controversial protests against police brutality. It doesn’t look like that is going to change anytime soon. As a result, the N.F.L. continues to be the most controversial and perplexing sports league in the U.S. (and possibly the world), rivaled only by the incessantly corrupt FIFA.
On Aug. 14, 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked the protests by sitting down during the national anthem before a preseason game. No one took notice until a few weeks later and, when they did, many felt that Kaepernick was disrespecting the American flag, the national anthem, and the U.S. military. This haphazard conflation of political protest and imprecise conceptions of “disrespect” represents the dominant narrative used by right-leaning pundits and writers in recent months.
While the scope of the protest has increased, their meaning has also proven malleable by the N.F.L. and its owners. The league has sporadically gone from supporting the players’ First Amendment free speech rights to marketing the protests as a symbol of unity in the N.F.L. to denouncing them. N.F.L. players themselves have expanded the protest to address racial equality and criminal justice reform. As a result, Kaepernick has all but been banned from the league, with no team willing to sign him and only six weeks left in the N.F.L. regular season. Many believe there is no reasonably justifiable reason he is being excluded from this year’s draft.
To add insult to injury, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Texans owner Robert C. Mcnair have both recently received criticism for making racially insensitive comments. In a league constantly mired with controversy over its dysfunction and lack of awareness, the N.F.L.’s poor response to the protests, combined with comments like these, only hurt its dwindling reputation. In the weeks after Kaepernick’s initial protest, he received advice from a former Green Beret that it would be more respectful to kneel during the national anthem. Kaepernick took that advice, but his detractors did not go away. In fact, they only increased in quantity as the protests received attracted more and more attention.
Recently, President Trump commented on the protests, which a significant number of N.F.L. players have now taken part in. At a rally for Alabama Senate candidate, Luther Strange, Trump stated that team owners should “fire” protestors, said the protests disrespect U.S. heritage, and effectively called the protesters “sons of bitches.” President Trump’s comments were not only offensive, but they also indicated his failure to understand the historical ties between sports and politics. History has proven that professional sports leagues, which exist within a political and economic framework, are inherently inseparable from those frameworks. Trump’s lack of historical knowledge, combined with his clear contempt for those who do not share his views, is dangerous. This discourse is a cornerstone of the U.S. However, Trump does not seem to agree and his comments come across as an attack on free speech. His commentary also reflects some of the points of disconnection between people protesting police brutality and their opponents. Namely, Trump claimed that the protests disrespect U.S. heritage. In doing so, he misunderstood both the purpose of the protests, and what “U.S. heritage” actually entails.
Kaepernick’s protest did not set out to disrespect the U.S. military, its flag, or even the national anthem. The purpose was to bring attention to police brutality. With that in mind, the national anthem, an aspect of U.S. heritage that Trump alluded to, is very clearly racist. That is why the NAACP has started a campaign to remove it as the national anthem.
In short, Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1815, was pro-slavery and anti-black. He also opposed the “Colonial Marines,” an all-black British battalion made up of runaway slaves. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is simultaneously intensely patriotic and virulently racist. Key wrote the song a few weeks after he was captured by the Colonial Marines as he watched the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. America would lose the battle, but hurt the British significantly, which motivated Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” when he was freed. The song’s third stanza is a vengeful and racist repudiation of the British Colonial Marines:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireline and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Key declares, “that the blood of all the former slaves and ‘hirelings’ on the battlefield will wash away the pollution of the British invaders.” Key’s words support the deaths of slaves, and paint a horrific and shameful picture. Although the N.F.L. protests began to bring attention to police brutality in the U.S., they have revealed other deep issues within the U.S. and the N.F.L. Having said that, the N.F.L.’s issues can be seen as a reflection of social issues in the U.S.
The protests have shown that the N.F.L. is woefully out of touch with race issues in the U.S.; it has also revealed that the N.F.L. is practicing the de facto exclusion of Colin Kaepernick. Ostensibly, Kaepernick should be an N.F.L. player based on his skill. Yet, he is being excluded from the draft. Ostensibly, the N.F.L. banned Kaepernick because he protested for the rights of black lives. That controversial piece of information may come to characterize and define the N.F.L. for years to come. And if it does, how will it characterize and define one of the U.S.’s most public and prolific businesses? Only history will provide the answer to such questions, and, thus far, the N.F.L. is clearly on the wrong side of it.