In the Fall of 2016, one knee on the ground resulted in an outburst of debate over racial injustices throughout the United States and the NFL. Later, it diluted into controversy over the National Anthem. Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback of the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers, took a knee during the National Anthem. His infamous act transcended the football field shortly after. The awareness he brought from kneeling during the anthem cannot be understated; he opened the door for many players in the NFL—as well as other athletes and people—to protest racial injustice in America.
During the league’s fourth week in late September 2017, President Trump tweeted out his displeasure with the NFL players sitting or kneeling during the National Anthem. His tweets led to a huge demonstration within the NFL the following week, with hundreds of players protesting in retaliation. Many players, such as Kaepernick’s 49ers teammate Eric Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, continued to protest for the majority of the season. The players’ protests continued to be a heavily debated topic among league executives. Owners were either against the protest or had no problem with it.
Kaepernick had once been a successful starting quarterback in the NFL leading his team to a Super Bowl appearance and multiple NFC Championship games. After the 2016 season—the season in which he had protested throughout—he found himself as a free agent with no one willing to sign him. Kaepernick’s NFL career essentially ended prematurely due to the NFL restricting him from being signed. Kaepernick claimed the NFL executives were the reason for his lack of interest as a free agent. Since then, the NFL’s reputation has been tarnished among the media. Former Pro Bowler Eric Reid has also suffered from a complete lack of interest in the free agent market despite the high level he has played at through much of his young career. Reid was the first player after Kaepernick to kneel during the anthem and continued to kneel since he had first done so in August 2016.
On May 23, 2018 the NFL implemented a final policy regarding the National Anthem. The policy, which had been reported to be a unanimous decision, was not even held under a formal vote. The decision was held by asking if any of the owners were against the policy: it has been reported that no owners rejected. It demands that all players must stand for the anthem and gives teams the right to fine and suspend their players if they sit or kneel. The rule does allow the option for players to remain in the locker room during the anthem; however, such a hidden exercise of free speech takes away the whole essence of raising awareness. Many of the owners around the league believed that this policy would be beneficial to players wanting to protest.
The NFL is making a mistake by laying down such a policy. It will hinder any solution to be met with players on protesting the National Anthem. The players have made their intentions clear as far as directing their protest towards raising awareness for injustice, not to disrespect the nation or the flag. The NFL’s attempt by restricting the players’ First Amendment rights of their freedom to protest is not only unconstitutional but seems pointless. These professional athletes have multiple platforms and large fan bases whom they can reach out towards. The owners themselves do not seem to be at all under a supposed “unanimous agreement” that has been publicized. With ratings already taking a huge hit from last year, the decision has split fans into two different camps: one supporting the protest of the players, the other opposed.
Hope for the players is not all lost. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA, i.e., the players’ union) has appealed the anthem policy. The NFLPA is forcing the debate of how legitimate is a policy that silences a protest of racial injustice. Their voice could make sure that this will not become a forgone conclusion but rather something more meaningful to be discussed. The debate over the anthem policy will most assuredly start to gain significant media attention as the new league year begins. The extra attention towards this situation regarding the anthem will be good for the players’ public relations.
Players such as Kaepernick, Jenkins, and Reid have not only been active through protesting but have been extremely supportive of civil rights organizations and raising funds for their own initiatives. After the NFL established the anthem policy many players were frustrated and disappointed with the direction the league was taking. One of those players, Jenkins, had refused to speak with the media when news broke out and used the time instead to protest social injustice. Owners of teams have also come to the support of players. New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson, who said he’d pay for every fine that would be assessed to any of his players. Owners like Johnson give players a reason to believe that the anthem policy isn’t something that will be here to stay.
Athletes protesting political opinions is nothing new. Athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown were just a few athletes who participated in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. From the Olympics to the NFL and even the NBA, athletes have used their platforms to express their political opinions in hopes of raising awareness. Their efforts are finally reached but the steps that follow in taking action is where they seemed too held up repeatedly. This season there is no doubt that players will be protesting racial injustices during the national anthem. In terms of the numbers of players and consistency of protests happening throughout the season depends on what the NFL and NFLPA agree on in terms of a national anthem policy. From what I believe I think that neither sides will come to an agreement or will agree on not having a policy whatsoever, thus leading to protests at a steady pace. However, I do believe there will be a considerable amount of big name players participating in the protests. Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey of the Tennessee Titans has stated publicly that he plans to protest the entire season and is willing to pay any fine that would have been assessed due to the policy.
Racial injustice is still alive and well in the United States. Players will no doubt look to past deaths like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, but also future occurrences around the start of the season. The oppression of African Americans here in the United States has not quieted down. With majority of the NFL’s players having African American heritage, they sympathize the oppression that many other African Americans might face and understand the platforms they can use to express that sympathy.