“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 leave and getting away with murder.”
That is the explanation that Colin Kapernick gave to reporters after the third preseason game for the San Francisco 49ers in late August 2016. Fast forward twenty one months later after two full NFL seasons embroiled in a national anthem controversy, the owners have unanimously approved a NFL National Anthem Policy. I’ve read the statement that was given in accordance with the introduction of this new policy. I do appreciate that they acknowledged how unfortunate it was that “on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousand of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.” That being said that false perception was held and often driven by a number of NFL owners themselves.
At the end of the day the NFL owners ultimately care about the bottom line. I do not believe they really get it, and honestly I’m not convinced they really care. After the mid season closed door meetings with some of the players who had become the leaders of this movement within the NFL they concluded that they would support the foundations and charities the players were involved in within their respective communities. That solution falls short of actually addressing the actual concerns of the wider movement the players are lending their voices to within the United States of America as a whole demanding better policing in communities of color and accountability for officers who are wrongfully kill unarmed citizens. They do not care about there being a universal standard of policing and police protocol. They do not care about police officers whose recklessness and clear disregard for their training in deescalation tactics lead to unnecessary and unjust deaths. These are issues that can’t be resolved by getting behind the local Boys & Girls Club.
But ultimately this isn’t simply about the NFL not getting it or not caring. It’s about a large swath of America not getting it, or simply not caring. They do not care about the inequitable policing of black and brown bodies that can get Tamir Rice shot and killed in two seconds flat, but still armed white mass shooters can be taken into custody without incident hours after they’ve gone on a shooting rampage. They have been drip fed the lie of black inferiority, of inherent black savagery all their lives. These lies date back to the foundations of this country when Columbus discovered a resource far more valuable than the gold he was in search of. He found brown bodies, and with the authority bestowed on him by the crown and the church he sought to own them and make them work for him. If they did not comply they were killed. Thus as far as they are concerned the high profile incidences involving people of color who have been killed by police officers in recent years are just another black or brown body in a heap of millions that has been collecting for five hundred years that should have just done what their master told them to do.
It is not NFL owners who sat on the juries or grand juries who either choose to acquit or not indict Officer Yanez, Officer Wilson, Officer Pantaleo, George Zimmerman, or Officer Loehmann. It was our fellow citizens many of whom are likely NFL Fans, play fantasy football, or have a favorite local team. They are Vikings fans. They were Rams fans. They are Giants or Jets fans. They are Browns fans. Jurors decided and much of America approved.
Lost in all the anthem controversy of the past two years is the actual symbolic meaning of the stars and stripes. The American flag itself has been distorted to mean something else, something that was not originally intended. America has either forgotten or simply does not want to be beholden to the great ideals that America aspires to be and thus what the flag represents. When the colonists first marched into the battles of the Revolutionary War with the flag it was not in honor of the troops who were fighting against the crown of Great Britain whom they believed was a tyrant. They carried the flag to remind them what they were fighting for. The ideal they aspired towards as expressed in The Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It represents what we aspire to be but have never fully been. The pageantry that was developed around supporting troops during war time dating back the World War II has caused us to forget what the flag was meant to signify. It was quite a convenient revision for a nation that fought a war against fascism whilst rounding up Asian Americans into internment camps and sending black men who were legally discriminated against at home across the ocean to fight for the freedom of white foreigners
Truth be told America has had a very slow and contentious march towards fulfilling that ideal for all of it’s history into the present day. By 1776 it had been nearly 130 years since the courts in Virginia ruled that John Punch “being a negro… shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere”. That of course after the Dutchman and the Scotsman who had fled with John Punch got four additional years added to their servitude. In the sixty years after the Joe Punch Decision Virginia codified a series of court decisions that created a radicalized system of slavery with the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705. It effectively embedded white supremacy into law, and the other colonies quickly followed suit. Thus the Declaration of Independence was conceived under the clear auspices of white supremacy. White Supremacy in America has never fully been addressed and dismantled. Thus today we have glaring issues of racial inequality not least of which is the criminal justice system.
If there was ever a time for NFL owners to see the urgency and seriousness of what the players were kneeling for it was during the first weekend of preseason games in early August 2017. Out spoken white supremacists marched through Charlottesville Virginia and protested the removal of statues depicting rebels and traitors of America. Statues of men who believed it was their divine right to rule over men and women of color. Not on their knees, but with torches. Not with silence but with shouts that they will not be replaced. Not in their uniforms of white hoods masking their faces, but in their street clothes and their pale faces in the open. Not with a posture of submission but with gestures of assault and violent confrontation armed with anything that could be used as a weapon.Yet in the midst of weekly news stories of black people having the police called on them for doing everyday ordinary things, and bigots no longer holding their tongue, they’ve made it clear what matters most.. their bottom line of corporate sponsors and white fans who just want their football without the distractions and for the players to simply comply and give them a good game.