“Taking A Knee”: Sports, Patriotism, and the 1st Amendment

Written by Alexis Datta

The main dispute of the protest is that, by sitting or kneeling during the National Anthem, players disrespecting the country as well as those who have served it. Yet, the idea that the sense of fidelity towards one’s country and the protest of police brutality towards Black Americans are diametrically opposed is flawed.

During 2016’s pre-season, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew widespread criticism for sitting during the performance of the National Anthem. Throughout the past few months, however, other football players have joined him to show solidarity in his fight against oppression in the United States. Kaepernick has since explained that his actions were not meant to disrespect the flag, as many people had assumed, but rather to protest oppression and subjugation within the United States, particularly in the context of police brutality against Black Americans.

Recently, players, coaches, and team owners have both joined and criticised Kaepernick for his decisions. There have been multiple games in which teams have been absent altogether for the National Anthem; for their September 24th game, the Pittsburgh Steelers made a collective decision to stand in the tunnel before the game. Ex-Army Ranger and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was controversially the only Steeler standing, apologizing after the debacle and telling an interviewer that the separation was an accident. The trend continued, with dozens of players kneeling in the Ravens-Jaguars game during week three, after President Donald Trump’s comments before the game insulting players who participated in the protest.

This situation, of course, brings to the spotlight the First Amendment rights of the players, as asserted by Kaepernick’s collusion case later brought against the National Football League. (Sports Illustrated has a great article about the nuances of the case that you can read here.) The question essentially develops into an exploration of the theoretical extension of players’ rights on the field as well as how they apply to this scenario. As 49ers linebacker Eric Reid so eloquently quoted of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” Is that time now?

Patriotism has long been linked to sports games—Sunday Night Football is a lesser manifestation of the more traditional ‘white picket fence’ American Dream. Despite this, the influence of patriotism was not always a fixture in the NFL; “paid patriotism” beginning in 2009 caused several teams to make their players stand during primetime games, on the dime of the Department of Defense. While this funding was not reflective of the underlying reasoning behind the nationalism on display (the flag was shown long before 2009, and players could choose whether they were present for the anthem or not), the NFL spokesman at the time confirmed “the practice [of players being on the field for the National Anthem] began in 2009,” according to Vice News.

The main dispute of the protest is that, by sitting or kneeling during the National Anthem, players disrespecting the country as well as those who have served it. Yet, the idea that the sense of fidelity towards one’s country and the protest of police brutality towards Black Americans are diametrically opposed is flawed. The flag and anthem serve as representations of not only our servicewomen and -men, but also—more tangibly—of our economic production, and—less concretely—of our culture, practices, and societal norms. Using them as forms of demonstration should apply equally across all aspects of this representation. This should also therefore serve as a reminder of the importance of First Amendment rights. Every player has the right to sit, stand, or kneel for the Anthem, regardless of public opinion on the matter.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs released a statement after the game in support of the players’ decisions. “Personally, I think the comments made about my brothers who decided to protest and kneel is kind of what made us no longer be silent,” Suggs said. “We stand with our brothers. They have the right to protest. We knelt with them today. Non-violent protest is as American as it gets. We knelt with them today and let them know we are a unified front. There is no dividing us. I guess we’re all sons of b—-es.”

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