Shut up and let them speak


National Football League (NFL) quarterback Colin Kaepernick accomplished the lazy man’s dream. He made a difference in the world by sitting on his butt. Kaepernick sparked a nationwide conversation about the treatment of minorities, freedom of speech and proper etiquette towards the flag.

Unfortunately, this debate has devolved into a battle that pits team owners and fans against the players. The debate has alienated the two parties and distracted from the good ol’ game of football. To avoid further alienation of both parties, team owners and fans must realize that the players aren’t protesting the national anthem to declare their loyalty to another country but simply using their national platform to seek justice for the treatment of minorities in society.

When Kaepernick sat on the bench of the San Fransisco 49ers during the national anthem at the first preseason game on Aug. 14, 2016, he went unnoticed because he wasn’t wearing his uniform. During the third preseason game on Aug. 26, 2016, the media finally noticed that Kaepernick remained seated while the rest of his team stood. After the game, reporters asked him why he refused to stand.

“I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” Kaepernick said. “To me, [racial oppression] is something that has to change. When there is significant change, and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”

Kaepernick made sure to clarify that he meant to protest police brutality and didn’t intend to dishonor the flag and what it means to military personnel and their families.

“I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening,” Kaepernick said. “People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.”

As a sign of displeasure, fans began burning his jersey and memorabilia. The situation got so bad that many hoped that backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert would start instead of Kaepernick. One should never have to wish that their team operate under the leadership of Blaine Gabbert — he is a bad quarterback who doesn’t display any qualities of a successful quarterback and will never take a team to the playoffs. But I digress.

The following week, Nate Boyer — a U.S. Army veteran and former NFL football player — wrote an open-letter to Kaepernick. In the letter, Boyer mentioned that he initially responded with anger towards Kaepernick but was willing to hear him out. He also touched on what the flag meant to him when he carried the flag out during a preseason game.

“As I ran out of the tunnel with the American flag I could feel myself swelling with pride, and as I stood on the sideline with my hand on my heart as the anthem began, that swelling burst into tears,” Boyer said. “I thought about how far I’d come, and the men I’d fought alongside who didn’t make it back. I thought about those overseas who were risking their lives at that very moment.”

After reading the letter, Kaepernick contacted Boyer to arrange a meeting. During the meeting, Boyer suggested a different method of protesting during the national anthem to show more respect towards the men and women who have lost their lives for what the flag represents. Boyer recommended that Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem due to the symbolic nature of kneeling.

“Kneeling because people need to pray,” Boyer said. “[Veterans] will kneel in front of a fallen brother’s grave to show respect.”

Kaepernick kneeled during the playing of the national anthem for the next preseason game and all regular season games. Soon, teammate Eric Berry joined him. Within weeks, multiple players across the league — like wide receiver Kenny Stills, linebacker Brandon Marshall and running back Arian Foster — knelt to show support for social change and Kaepernick.

illustration by Julia Poage Photo credit: Julia Poage

The protests persisted from the 2016–17 season through the 2017–18 season, despite Kaepernick becoming a free agent following the 2016–17 season. The protests caught the eye of Donald Trump, president of the United States. On Sept. 22, 2017, at a campaign rally, he talked about what NFL owners should do if any of their players kneel.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired,!” Trump asked.

Trump’s statements put pressure on the NFL to establish a new policy for proper etiquette during the national anthem before the 2018–19 season began. In late May, the NFL owners unanimously agreed on a new policy. Under the new policy, players would face disciplinary action if they kneeled or sat down. Players would be permitted to protest by remaining in the locker room while the national anthem plays.

In mid-July, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) filed a grievance placing a hold on the current policy until the two sides mutually agreed on a new policy. Yet here we are, days away from the first week of regular season without a resolution in place.

Unless the NFLPA can convince the NFL to soften their policy, any sort of protest will earn players a fine and suspension. Eliminating the player’s ability to free speech de-Americanizes one of America’s most popular sports. How can we say it is American football if we deprive the players the most basic right of all Americans?

I can understand how you may feel that the players should just shut up and play the game. You are watching the NFL to see people toss a ball around and to give other people concussions. You are not watching to see a political rally. It’s ESPN, not C-SPAN.

Here’s the deal. The only people who watch C-SPAN are the people in a podiatrist’s waiting room. People watch ESPN. The players have a platform where their voices and actions can reach millions. Can you blame them for using it? They see a problem with America, and they want to do something about it. They want change.

They have heard case after case of police brutality, not to mention their own personal experiences of racial injustice and prejudice. They decided to non-violently protest by showing America that it can’t continue to operate with racial oppression causing a divide among its citizens.

Not only does the protest harm no one, but also could not take up less of your time. The protest lasts less than two minutes (unless Fergie sings the national anthem.) If it really perturbs you so much, do something else for the two minutes. Check Twitter for any last-minute information about the game. Get some snacks. Hit the john so you won’t miss any of the game.

I will never understand what it is like to be a minority in America. I have never experienced racial prejudice or injustice. Yet in the same way, I will never understand quite what the flag represents to veterans and their families. I have one distant relative who fought in the Vietnam War during the Battle of Khe Sanh. That’s it. I can’t even remember his name. My family has no active members of the Armed Forces. I can not begin to appreciate the sacrifices made by veterans and their families.

I am more likely to find a golden ticket in my next Wonka bar or to win the Nobel Peace Prize next year for my work in procrastination than to understand the lifestyle of veteran. I will never know what it is like to live overseas separated from your loved ones as your life remains in jeopardy every day.

But what I do know is that the players who protest the national anthem never intended to disrespect veterans and their families. Rather than sit, they have resorted to more respectful kneeling. Veterans kneel at the graves of their fallen brothers. To put a literary twist on it, Kaepernick and others kneel at the grave of their fallen brothers: Racial equality and fair treatment by police officers.

During the protests, a few players — like cornerback Jeremy Lane — chose to remain sitting instead of kneeling. Lane did dishonor the flag and what it represents because he ignored the national anthem. I don’t believe that he purposely disrespected the flag and its value. Regardless, he messed up.

I have created a concise, yet thorough, guide about etiquette during the national anthem. To maintain a respectful protest during the national anthem, one must:

  1. Acknowledge that the “The Star-Spangled Banner” is playing. Are you on your ass? If so, change that.
  2. Protest in such a way that does not prevent others from doing what they wish, whatever that may be. Are you playing other music loudly? Are you talking loudly? If you answered yes to either of those, change that. Are you preventing someone from doing what they want? If so, don’t. It’s not your life.

At the end of the day, the two sides will never come to agreement if they don’t attempt to understand the other’s story. If the players protesting the national anthem still bothers you so much, just shut up and watch the game.