PCS Students Reflect on Colin Kaepernick and National Anthem Protest Coverage

Graduate students here at the University of Maryland’s Physical Cultural Studies program have been profoundly affected and engaged with the recent national media coverage concerning Colin Kaepernick, President Donald Trump, and the protests by professional athletes to raise awareness about police brutality and race relations.  Below are three short essays from PCS students, as they reflect on the news and how it impacts their own studies as critical scholars of sport.

What I Screamed at my Television

 – By Brandon Wallace

Last Tuesday, CNN aired a primetime town hall special called “Patriotism, The Players, and the President.” The show aimed to address the current hot-button topic: Colin Kaepernick and the #TakeAKnee protest of police brutality and institutional racism. Hosted by Anderson Cooper, the special coalesced a variety of people with a vested interest in the topic, including 4 panelists, 3 current NFL players, and an audience with a diversity of ideas, questions, and reactions. One of the panelists was toted filmmaker Spike Lee, who I perceived was clearly casted to be the voice of the majority of the African-American community who fully support the protest. The other panelists were US Army Green Beret soldier Nate Boyer, who respectfully objected to the protest, Reverend Michael Faulkner, who as an African-American was also against the protest, and former NFL player Hines Ward, who failed to take a definitive stance and perpetually teetered somewhere in the middle. Current NFL players Malcolm Jenkins, Michael Bennett, and Doug Baldwin joined via video and gave powerful, articulate, nuanced messages and explanations for the current protest. People in the audience periodically chipped in with questions and anecdotes.

I’m going to give CNN the benefit of the doubt and say that they had good intentions in setting up this event. The idea was clearly to get “all sides” in one room so they can listen to each respectfully and gain insight in a constructive way. Unfortunately, I don’t think much progress was made. It seemed like everyone came in with their minds already made up and left the same way. The same clichés that we’ve heard for the past year were present: that the anthem was the wrong thing to protest, as if that’s what these players are actually protesting; that protesting doesn’t make a difference, as if the end of British-colonial America, slavery, segregation, child labor, Vietnam, or the ban on gay marriage was due to the oppressors waking up on the right side of the bed one day; that these athletes should be grateful to a country that has “allowed” them to make millions playing a game, as if society has suddenly denounced rugged individualism and can finally have a discussion about the presence and power of external circumstances; that these athletes should take the initiative and be active in the communities, as if they’re not, and as if you are; and that “unity” and locked arms is the answer to this problem, as if disunity has been the enslaver, the segregator, the discriminator, the redliner, the disenfranchiser, and the killer all along, rather than racism.

One particular moment during this night stuck out to me, because it made my blood boil. Someone in the crowd had a question for Spike Lee. Remember, in the special Spike assumed the role of speaking for the protestors. He is a great filmmaker who has engaged with the complicated topic of race multiple times throughout his career, but unfortunately he spent most of the night shouting, interrupting, and refusing to listen to anyone else. Consequently, most of the audience’s questions were regarded to him. A man from the audience stood up with an American flag and a picture of his son, a fallen US soldier, to ask Spike two questions. First, the man told his son’s story and asked why people should support multimillionaire athletes over the heroes in the military, like his son. Spike rightfully responded that kneeling for the anthem and supporting the troops were not mutually exclusive. Then, the man asked his second question: “When North Korea aims a nuclear missile at us, are these football players gonna be on their knees or supporting the troops?”

I stood to my feet in disbelief, wondering how a question could be so loaded. I waited for Spike to unequivocally set the record straight. Spike, with millions watching, struggled to get his thoughts together and only responded that Donald Trump is the greater threat. This answer enraged me. To leave a question that vacuous and obtuse with such a weak answer irked me for the rest of the week. So I’m offering the answer I would have given, to get it off my chest.

Here is the clean version of how I would have reacted to a question like that:

“………uhhhhhh what? Seriously? I shouldn’t have to explain this, but the North Korea and police brutality are completely unrelated. Additionally, these athletes have not disparaged the troops once. The only reason that you’re associating a protest of racism with a protest of America is that the hegemony of racist ideology is so entrenched in America that it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. Sir, I’m sickened that your son lost his life in war and I’m sorry for your loss. I understand that you stand for the anthem with him in mind. But what you don’t understand is that African-Americans are kneeling for the anthem with their sons in mind. With Trayvon Martin in mind. With Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Laquon McDonald, Sandra Bland, and Alton Sterling in mind. These people, and many more, have all lost their lives due to broad and institutional racism, neglect and indifference shown towards them in the country to which you expect them to devote unwavering patriotism. Their lives matter just as much as your son’s. So to answer your question directly, I would say both. For however long it takes.”

That, with many expletives omitted, is what I screamed at my television. Unfortunately, nobody heard it. Although it seems like nobody would have heard if it I were in Spike’s place either.


Steeling Kaepernick’s Spotlight

 – By Anna Posbergh

If you mention to someone that you’re from Pittsburgh, one of three topics are usually said in response: the city “post-steel age,” Primanti Bros, and Pittsburgh professional sports teams. The first two usually prompt a lighthearted conversation with maybe a few chuckles and knowing nods, but sports are no joke in the Steel City. So when the Steelers announced that the entire team would remain in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem before their recent game against the Chicago Bears, I could only imagine people’s reactions in a city that literally shuts down everything except for Heinz Field on home Steelers game days.

The reasoning for this move by the Steelers, however, surprised me. I was troubled by head coach Mike Tomlin’s announcement that the team would remain in the locker room during the anthem to “remove pressure from the players of whether they should protest or not” and to “not play politics” for two reasons.  First, by refusing to participate in the conversation that Colin Kaepernick brought to the forefront of football and the nation a year ago, the Steelers used their privilege to ignore the protests in a way that halts conversations about social justice and societal progress. How one-sided would this problem of social justice and equality be if everyone who felt uncomfortable in such politically-volatile situations were able to simply stay in the locker room and wait for the chaos to end? The ability of the team to simply remove themselves from the national narrative and refuse to “take a stance” is a privilege that many in our country don’t get to enjoy, especially communities of color for whom Kaepernick is kneeling in solidarity. In removing themselves from the national conversation and the mediated spotlight, the Steelers wasted an opportunity to inspired more discussions about systemic racial injustice. They remained silent when Americans needed their voices the most.

Second, Tomlin and the Steelers completely missed the point of these “protests.” His statement skirts the real issue at hand. The protests by Kaepernick and others were not waged to inspire a dialogue about the unrefined, brash, and offensive words of Donald Trump. This was never even a conversation about strictly the National Football League. Kaepernick’s original purpose in kneeling during the national anthem was to draw attention to the racial injustices and inequalities that continue to permeate and define American society since the country’s inception. In all the hoopla and uproarious reactions of seemingly everyone on social media, in news, and with a voice, I think we have forgotten the why of this national discourse. Of course, the fact that the words “son of a b*tch” were uttered by the President of the United States is grounds for indignation and criticism. Sadly, just add it to the growing list of asinine things President Trump says on a daily basis. Amidst the insults, arguments about patriotism, the “red, white, blue” and football, we should not forget the real reason why Kaepernick knelt: to bring attention to the unassailable fact of police brutality disproportionately targeted on the African American community. Institutional racism is real and will not go away until we take action to fix the problem. We need to have the uncomfortable conversations that bring such social issues to the surface. We cannot take advantage of our privilege, whether that be the privileges that come with the color of our skin color, profession, gender, or role in society, and hide in our locker rooms. We cannot get lost in the sea of social media, fake news, and alternative facts. We have, right now as a result of the sudden national spotlight, an opportunity to refocus the attention of the nation away from a man unfit for the Oval Office, and back to the issues that matter and will ultimately better our society.


No More Sitting Out

 – By Eric Stone

On Friday, I was sitting on a plane bound for Cincinnati, headed to see my beloved Red Sox take on the Reds. As I boarded, I opted to sit between two white men: another Red Sox fan and a man on his way home. We commenced with the usual greetings and typical travel banter between strangers, with the Red Sox fan asking why I was headed to Cincinnati and how many games I was going to see. Eventually we began to talk about football, and our conversation quickly turned to the recent news (Marcum, 2017) concerning Colin Kaepernick, as is frequently the case in such spaces where people feel emboldened to share their opinions. Between my seatmates and I, there was safety in numbers, safety in whiteness.  Apparently in Cincinnati, there was news that some Bengals players were grumbling about the team’s current issues with scoring, and a not too small number of them had begun throwing around Kaepernick’s name as a possible player to sign.

I had commented about this on a post on Facebook a few days before, about how this discussion usually devolved into discussions about the “disrespect” Kaepernick was showing for the flag, police officers, the military, and the nation. Traitor; scumbag; entitled a**hole. I had seen and heard all of it in the news, on the internet, and even in my classrooms.  In my own critique of the news on Facebook, I related this recent discourse about Kaepernick with the tenets of neoliberal ideology, and how it shaped the conversation about acceptable forms of resistance and the divisiveness it engenders. As we buckled our seatbelts and raised our tray tables, my neighbors were lamenting how this protest impacted members of the military who had sacrificed limbs and lives for the United States. The protests by Kaepernick and other professional athletes, they argued, were disrespectful because the athletes did not consider alternative ways of protest. As a graduate teaching assistant, I already had spoken to my current students multiple times about the cultural power of these protests, and how their symbolic message about race discrimination in American society was being lost in the uproar about respecting the flag and the anthem.

As I sat engaged in conversation with the two men on my flight, I realized it was an opportunity to engage with this discourse about the protests directly, to try and influence the discussion.  It was my chance to put into action the message I have been imparting to my students: the importance in speaking up in these challenging moments. But I didn’t. Instead, I froze.

I opted for silence, in part, because I knew I had to share the same row of seats with these men for the next hour and a half. I opted for comfort, prioritizing my feelings over the message Kaepernick and others have been trying to convey: the need to change the discourse surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to end police brutality. For the rest of the flight, the comments of the men sitting beside me—the disrespect of kneeling “to protest the anthem”—ate away at me. They discussed Kaepernick and the obfuscation of his message as though it were a simple matter to “stop and do it in another way”, or to quietly protest as a hail of accusations and abuse showered him and other athletes for their “disrespect”. I said nothing.

It was within this moment that I realized that the discomfort and disquiet I was feeling was my privilege. As a white man in America, I have the ability to ignore the athletes’ protests, to ignore the reality of police brutality, to ignore the effects of a system that disproportionately punishes people of color.

With my flight to Cincinnati now past, I am left to play out the scenario in my mind over and over, regretting how I responded to my seatmates’ opinions. We are told in society to avoid such confrontations, to live and let live, to not sweat the small stuff, that we live in a post-racial society. During holidays, during chats at the water cooler, we disavow and hide behind our privilege, shielding ourselves from the fact that we have benefited from the systemic oppression of people of color.  It is in these moments that we must be courageous, and acknowledge how forms of White privilege shape how we move through the world. We must stand up, have the difficult conversations, engage with the national discourse, and stand with our friends, family, and loved ones who have fought this ignorance and fear alone for too long. Those discussions at Thanksgiving, the conversations over bagels and coffee need to have meaning; they need to push back against the inequality that continues to play out in communities across the country. We need to push back against the ignorance and fear that have continued to divide us as Americans and empower those who profit from such societal division.

The discomfort that we privileged people feel when we encounter people who are not sympathetic to oppressed populations pales in comparison to what those populations endure through the daily forms of oppression. I was uncomfortable for an hour and a half, our friends, family, loved ones; community members of color are much more than “uncomfortable” in their everyday experiences. We must facilitate such difficult conversations so we can push back against ignorance and duplicity that perpetuates inequality in communities across the United States.

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