During a Monday, August 21, preseason game against the New York Giants, 11 Cleveland Browns players kneeled in a prayer circle during the National Anthem. They were flanked by another five players who placed their hands on their teammates’ shoulders in a show of solidarity.
The players who participated in this act of civil disobedience have effectively snatched power from the owners and the league and given it to the handful of players who have been protesting on an island by themselves. This move could open the door for Colin Kaepernick’s return to an NFL roster.
Starting a mass protest and starting a union share one very big problem: getting people to sacrifice their comfort for a cause greater than themselves. The first few members of any movement assume the greatest amount of risk, but once there is safety and strength in numbers others feel empowered to support the cause. It was easy for NFL owners to collude against Colin Kaepernick and blackball him from the league, but the Browns can’t cut 11 players- most of whom figure prominently in their plans for this season- for taking a knee.
As I type, there are people conflating their protest against police brutality and systemic racism with disrespect for the military. This argument is as woefully inaccurate and intellectually dishonest in 2017, as it was in 2016. These protests aren’t about the armed services. At halftime, the Browns organization issued the following statement:
As an organization, we have a profound respect for our country’s National Anthem, flag and the servicemen and servicewomen in the United States and abroad. We feel it’s important for our team to join in this great tradition and special moment of recognition, at the same time we also respect the great liberties afforded by our country including the freedom of personal expression.
The Browns’ protest happened almost a week after head coach Hue Jackson walked back statements he made in an interview that led some to believe he didn’t support his players right to protest. After receiving more questions about his earlier remarks than football during media availabilities Jackson read the following statement:
The intent of my comments was not to discourage individual expression from our players in light of a cause that moves them to personal expression… I’m disheartened that I gave anyone that impression because I did not speak with enough clarity…There are many effective ways athletes can utilize their platform if they so desire, but I would respect any individual decision, as ultimately, it would be the player’s choice after much thoughtful dialogue.
Hue Jackson’s words seemed to be uttered out of concern for his players. NFL rosters will be cut down to 53 the first week of September. The timing of this protest matters; the closer the players get to opening day, the less time teams have to shuffle out the “bad apples”. 53 players on an NFL roster doesn’t provide much depth. Players have been in camp learning the intricacies of their teams playbooks. At this stage of the preseason most of those slots have already been claimed.
Over the last few weeks there have been reports circulating about teams keeping players in the locker room during the National Anthem. This could very well happen, but it can’t and won’t stop players committed to to expressing themselves from doing so. The NFL wouldn’t be in this situation if the owners hadn’t conspired to punish Colin Kaepernick.
People on the underside of American society are expected to pledge allegiance to a nation that continues to value us less. These aren’t spoiled athletes. The players who kneeled in solidarity didn’t do this for themselves. They used their nonviolent expression to stand with their brothers and sisters affected by discriminatory practices in America. They are forcing us to talk about issues that many would rather ignore. Police brutality is real. Racism in America is real. The attempts to overshadow these realities guarantee that we will have more protests that can’t be ignored.