The controversy over NFL players protesting police violence during the National Anthem hit a flashpoint this past weekend, as players, coaches and for the first time, owners, engaged in coordinated protests.
The demonstrations included kneeling, standing with locked arms, Black Power fists and some teams avoiding the National Anthem altogether. All were in open defiance to President Trump, who on Friday said any player who protests is a “son of a bitch” who deserves to be fired.
While Trump’s comments brought the issue to the fore, the controversy has been percolating for more than a year. The phenomenon started with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled before games last year to bring attention to all of the unarmed black men who have been killed by police in recent years.
Kaepernick inspired dozens of other players to kneel as well. And soon they had done was once thought to be impossible: politicized the NFL.
Fans were no longer able to watch NFL games without having to consider the larger issues of race and politics, and some of them were none too happy with the change. Football had long been a haven from such issues, and here it was infringing on their enjoyment of the sport.
Critics accused the players of disrespecting the American military (though that wasn’t the object of their protest). Supporters noted that the National Anthem is inherently racist, as many of its verses endorse slavery.
The conservative backlash only seemed to fuel the protests, however, and soon, they started appearing at high school football games. Kaepernick began speaking with players at Bay Area high schools about matters of race and police brutality, and many of them followed his lead. Some high school teams even went as far as to lie down on the sidelines during games as a visceral reminder of the black men killed by police.
One noted high school recruit earned headlines and praise for wearing a T-shirt that read “I HOPE I DON’T GET KILLED FOR BEING BLACK TODAY” to a player showcase at Ohio State University.
Kaepernick emerged as the natural figurehead of this movement, but it came at substantial personal cost. His protests and activism have rendered him toxic in the eyes of NFL owners, who are too afraid to sign him for fear of upsetting their fans. Despite the woeful state of quarterbacking in the NFL, Kaepernick remains unemployed this season.
The controversy is about more than just football, though. It’s indicative of our larger political moment, where no institution, no matter how seemingly innocuous, is immune to politicization.
Football is now a proxy for our larger cultural war, and how you feel about it is more about you and your identity politics than the specific issue at hand. And this past weekend at least, the NFL chose to stand against Trump.