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NFL Kneeling Controversy

Staff Writer Dillon Harhangi delves into the NFL "knee-gate" controversy

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In August of 2016, a gesture that billions and billions of people perform daily began to make national and international news. Make no mistake, it was not the gesture itself that was labelled problematic or ‘anti-American’, but its timing and placement. When everyone else was standing for the American national anthem during an NFL pre-season game, now former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to sit. And then, for the next game, he did the same. And then again.

When a reporter finally took notice of Kaepernick’s actions and questioned him post-game, Kaepernick responded, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder”.

Predictably, the response was mixed. On one end of the spectrum was some of Kaepernick’s peers joining in his fight for social and racial equality, with former president Obama weighing in that Kaepernick was “exercising his constitutional rights”. On the other end, coaches, owners, and other players saw Kaepernick’s gesture as something that had no place on the football field. President Donald Trump has since proceeded to further increase the division when he tweeted with profanity that NFL players should be fired for disrespecting military veterans, the flag, the country of America, and the national anthem.

While a lot can be said about this controversy, it is important to try and see where this anger at Kaepernick is placed and if it can be justified. I think there are two possible explanations, though neither are satisfactory. Either someone is upset at Kaepernick’s message or upset at Kaepernick’s disrespect to the national anthem.

You may somehow find a way to disagree with Kaepernick’s message. Police officers do have a difficult job and are often underappreciated. The force of Kapernick’s language may also be too strong. But the content of Kaepernick’s message is something we should all identify with. As law students who have taken or are now taking criminal law, we know of the disproportionate amount of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons, that the courts recognize racial profiling by police officers, and of social inequalities towards minorities that are of an institutional nature. Kaepernick’s message, at its heart, aims at criminal justice reform and social inequality, since not all individuals in society are being treated as equal under the law.

Nevertheless, even if there is still somehow some kind of disagreement with Kaepernick’s message, then take any issue you find problematic in society and ask yourself this; if Kaepernick sat during the anthem and then responded to reporters with your social issue as his reason for doing so, would you still be upset?

If your answer is no, then the trouble is clearly with Kaepernick’s message, meaning this is source of the tension or anger at Kaepernick, not kneeling. But if your answer is yes, then the trouble lies not with the message, since any message would be unsatisfactory, but with any protesting during the national anthem.

Let’s explore if Kaepernick is being disrespectful to the national anthem. The “Star-Spangled Banner” was created during the War of 1812, and its connection with sports can be traced back to the first time it was played at a baseball game in 1862 during the Civil war. The national anthem at sporting events soon rose in popularity during World War I, carrying over to being played before a game during World War II. For Americans, there is a deep connection with patriotism, the military, and the singing of the national anthem during sporting events that ought to be respected.

But this misses the point because Kaepernick and other professional athletes are not protesting the national anthem. Nick Wright, a sports talk show, analogized this point by saying, “nobody who marches is protesting traffic”. Here, the anthem is only the vehicle of which the actual protest concerning race, a need for criminal justice reform, and social inequality takes place. As many politicians in the United States fail to take note of, the point is not to confuse the real message of the protest with the mode of protest.

Moreover, even if there is still disagreement about disrespect towards the national anthem, one only needs to look at the intentionality of Kaepernick. After speaking with fellow player and Army Special Forces veteran Nate Boyer, Kaepernick compromised his protest and agreed to kneel instead of sit, following a military tradition of taking a knee in front of a fallen soldier’s grave. Kaepernick told Boyer, “I don’t want to hurt you, I don’t want to hurt your brothers and sisters”. What then is disrespectful about Kaepernick’s actions?

There is one key aspect in his protest which Kaepernick has been wrong—Kaepernick thought he would be protesting alone. According to the Associated Press, over 200 players have since joined Kaepernick in protesting during the national anthem. Collegiate and high school athletes have also joined, along with NBA players and some MLB players. J.T. Brown became the first NHL player to do so. Beyond the realm of sports, celebrities and entertainers have also joined. With a lifeline of almost two years, and more protests and divide, this is one controversy that still requires overtime.

Dillon Harhangi is a 1L and Staff Writer for Juris Diction. 

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