Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem for the first time on September 1, 2016. He was joined by teammate Eric Reid and Seattle Seahawk Jeremy Lane. His gesture didn’t catch on in the NFL. Three days later, the next athlete to kneel in protest was Megan Rapinoe, member of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and midfielder for the Seattle Reign. Only after the President’s vitriolic twitter harassment of NFL players and owners, has anyone imitated Kaepernick. For the wrong reasons.
NFL players looking for a political playbook need look no further. In contrast to the slow and self-serving response by male athletes, women athletes have been protesting, without flinching and with clarity of purpose since at least July 9, 2016, after the successive murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Members of the WNBA and other women athletes protested and mounted other forms of activism in the name of racial justice long before Kaepernick and Trump. Further, they didn’t water down their message at the first sign of pecuniary consequence.
The time to take a knee was last year, with and in support of Kaepernick. But most Black NFL players refused, even though their lives and the lives of their families are at stake. That players fear they will end up unemployed like Kaepernick is obvious. Only now, after Trump has called kneelers SOB’s and continues to demand their termination, have these athletes been moved to modest action – and only because they have been personally attacked.
Players find themselves criticized like Kaepernick, and owners find themselves caught between their players, fans, and the President. Everyone’s earnings are at stake.
Most owners and players have responded evasively by rebranding kneeling. Taking a knee is no longer a statement against institutional violence against Blacks, it’s now a declaration of unity and an assertion of First Amendment rights. Saving Black lives is a footnote. And until Colin Kaepernick is rehired, kneeling is just window-dressing.
NFL players are attempting to play a game of respectability politics that can never be won. They want to limit their exposure to blacklash: protesting just enough to seem authentic but not so much so as to seem unpalatable. Consequently, they render themselves cowards by equivocating about the protection of their own humanity.
Women athletes have never attempted to walk such a fine line. They have been consistent, unwavering and clear. Whether playing professional basketball, soccer or tennis, they have used their platform to consistently highlight issues of injustice. Even during the WNBA finals a few weeks ago, the LA Sparks walked off the court during the anthem and were met with boos from the bleachers.
WNBA athletes were the first to support the Black Lives Matter movement by wearing BLM shirts during games. They were fined for doing so, but that didn’t stop them. They used media events to speak against police violence and have met with civil rights leaders like to Rep. John Lewis to further educate themselves. This past season, the New York Liberty hosted a town hall on race and social justice featuring players, activists and law enforcement. Further, White players are just as engaged as Black players.
Women athletes aren’t intimidated by whether protest will impact their salaries and relationships with owners, fans or the President because they already have had to weather adversity to get on the field. These athletes persevere even when financially penalized and even when their safety is jeopardized by off-duty police officers, serving as security guards at their games, walk off the job to challenge their activism.
NFL players can’t equivocate anymore. Are they kneeling to call attention to institutional violence against Black people? Or because the President called them SOBs? Or to assert their First Amendment rights? Or because at this moment, they might risk fan support if they don’t?
These players should follow the example of women athletes and kneel because they care and are willing to bear the consequences for doing so. Especially now that NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodall, and Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, have affirmatively stated that players should not kneel – an about-face from just two weeks ago. This has never been about free speech. Taking a knee on national television should signal a larger commitment to promoting justice. The Seattle Seahawks have taken note by establishing the Seahawks Players Equality and Justice for All Fund, promoting social justice initiatives. Will other players, teams, and owners follow suit?