Kneel­ing in the land of the free

The very Amer­i­can legacy of Amer­i­can foot­ball

The McGill Daily - - Sports - Molly Lu The Mcgill Daily

Over the past week, Na­tional Foot­ball League (NFL) play­ers have knelt, linked arms, and sat out of the play­ing of the U.S. na­tional an­them in sol­i­dar­ity with Colin Kaeper­nick’s protest of po­lice bru­tal­ity against Black peo­ple in the U.S.. At a rally in Alabama, Don­ald Trump called on NFL own­ers to “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,” that “son of a bitch” be­ing any player who, like Kaeper­nick, has knelt dur­ing the an­them to protest po­lice bru­tal­ity and the treat­ment of Black peo­ple and peo­ple of colour in Amer­ica. Jeff Ses­sions, At­tor­ney Gen­eral of the United States, fol­lowed Trump, call­ing for the NFL to in­state an of­fi­cial rule re­quir­ing play­ers to stand for the an­them.

Trump’s tirade against Kaeper­nick and call to boy­cott the NFL had the op­po­site of its in­tended ef­fect, how­ever: ESPN’S view­er­ship rat­ings for the first four weeks of the 2017 NFL sea­son were ac­tu­ally higher than their 2016 num­bers, and over the course of the week­end and un­til Tues­day af­ter­noon, #Takeaknee showed up in nearly 2.2 mil­lion unique tweets, whilst #Boy­cottnfl had been used in just over 390,000 unique tweets. The firestorm caused by Trump’s state­ments have also brought much needed ex­am­i­na­tion to a league that, de­spite 70 per cent of its play­ers be­ing Black, has a rep­u­ta­tion for shy­ing away from po­lit­i­cal or racial commentary.

In his ini­tial ex­pla­na­tion for his de­ci­sion to kneel, Colin Kaeper­nick stated, “I am not go­ing to stand up to show pride in a flag for a coun­try that op­presses Black peo­ple and peo­ple of color. . . There are bod­ies in the street and peo­ple get­ting paid leave and get­ting away with mur­der.” Trump, in a later in­ter­view, replied, “Maybe he should find a coun­try that works bet­ter for him.”

In 1965, the Amer­i­can Foot­ball League (AFL), which later merged with the NFL in 1969, ac­tu­ally played an ac­tive part in the Civil Rights Move­ment of the era and the cre­ation of a coun­try that would “work bet­ter” for peo­ple of colour.

Im­me­di­ately prior to the 1965 AFL All- Star Game, which was to take place in the his­tor­i­cally seg­re­gated South­ern city of New Or­leans, Black AFL play­ers were sub­ject to racist ex­clu­sion, in­tim­i­da­tion, and threats by the city’s white res­i­dents. The Black play­ers were de­nied cab ser­vice from the New Or­leans air­port, barred from restau­rants and clubs, and out­side one night­club, a bouncer pulled a gun on the Charg­ers’ Ernie Ladd and told him he couldn’t en­ter. The 21 Black play­ers, along with some white play­ers, voted to boy­cott the game, and AFL own­ers chose to move the game from New Or­leans to the more tol­er­ant city of Hous­ton. The 1965 boy­cott, like the po­lit­i­cal protest of Black play­ers today, was a highly vis­i­ble act born not from a need for racial equal­ity.

De­spite this, the League has long branded it­self as a haven from pol­i­tics. A 2014 Ex­pe­rian Sim­mons study found that reg­is­tered Repub­li­cans were 21 per cent more likely to be NFL watch­ers than Democrats, and the Sun­light Foun­da­tion in 2011 found that con­tri­bu­tions from the league’s 32 teams were nearly three times more for Repub­li­cans than for Democrats, in­di­cat­ing that the NFL, rather than a haven from pol­i­tics, has his­tor­i­cally been a haven from “pro­gres­sive” pol­i­tics.

Amer­i­can foot­ball his­tor­i­cally seg­re­gated col­lege teams un­til 1970, and racist no­tions of in­tel­li­gence blocked Black play­ers from the ‘ think­ing’ po­si­tion of quar­ter­back un­til this past decade and con­tin­ues to pre­vent Black play­ers from play­ing cen­tre today. More­over, the NFL ac­cepted at least $5.4 mil­lion paid out to 14 teams from 2011-2015 by the Depart­ment of De­fense for elab­o­rate “paid pa­tri­o­tism” trib­utes to Amer­i­can troops. By 2009, the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary had failed to meet its re­cruit­ment tar­gets for years, and so it be­gan pay­ing the NFL to help its re­cruit­ment ef­forts, pay­ing teams to ‘spon­sor’ mil­i­tary ap­pre­ci­a­tion games, fly­ing F-15s over sta­di­ums, and un­veil­ing Amer­i­can flags that spanned en­tire foot­ball fields.

The pa­tri­o­tism on dis­play at NFL games, then, has long been one fu­elled by right-wing agen­das and pol­icy, and not ‘sim­ply’ pa­tri­o­tism. Protest­ing the pol­icy of a na­tion that con­tin­ues to dis­pro­por­tion­ately kill, im­prison, and ex­ploit Black peo­ple and peo­ple of colour with im­punity, then, should have at least as much place on the field as the paid pro­mo­tion of the same state’s poli­cies. De­spite the front of unity that var­i­ous NFL teams have pre­sented this past week in the face of Don­ald Trump’s com­ments, it should not over­ride Colin Kaeper­nick’s orig­i­nal in­ten­tion: to protest anti-black racism. His kneel was not a protest against the pres­i­dent in par­tic­u­lar. While Don­ald Trump’s tand­ing in a sta­dium in Alabama call­ing for the si­lenc­ing of pre­dom­i­nantly Black pro­tes­tors is as racist an over­ture as can be de­liv­ered, but the NFL must con­sider its own legacy of racism within the larger con­text of Amer­ica’s be­fore it can claim to stand (or kneel) for jus­tice.

Inori Roy | The Mcgill Daily

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