The Kneeling Saga

To kneel or not to kneel. That is the question. As the 2017 football season plows on, seemingly everybody has an opinion about players who have decided to kneel instead of stand during the pre-game playing of the national anthem. In recent weeks, this issue has captured national attention, so much so that before every major sporting event, people wait with bated breath to see who will kneel and who will stand during the anthem. There are many sides to this controversial topic, one being that players should be allowed to kneel and practice free speech that condemns institutional racism in the United States. Another side states that kneeling during the anthem is extremely disrespectful and should be prohibited. Opinions aside, there is no disputing the prominence of this issue in America.

Most players who kneel during the anthem before games are doing so in protest. It is important to note where and when this protest originated. Colin Kaepernick, former NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, first sat down (as opposed to kneeling) during the anthem before a preseason game on Aug. 26, 2016. His reasoning was, “I’m going to stand with the people that are being oppressed … When there’s a significant change, and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent and this country is representing the people it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”

Kaepernick stated that he wasn’t kneeling for himself, but those who are “dying in vain because this country isn’t holding up their end of the bargain of giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.” Kaepernick also said that he has “great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” and that these people “fight for freedom” and “for the people.” In fact, Kaepernick changed his protest from sitting to kneeling after talking with former veteran and NFL long snapper Nate Boyer. They believed that this would “not take away from the military” but “still keep focus on what the issues really are.”

Kaepernick’s protest and the words that followed set off a tidal wave of events in the year that followed. Many NFL players began kneeling during the anthem. Some raised fists. Some athletes not associated with the NFL, like Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, knelt. Several other groups of players in different sports knelt as well, including some high school athletes. However, the issue rose to national attention during Week Three of the 2017 NFL season.

In a rally for a Senate candidate in Alabama, President Donald Trump exclaimed that NFL owners should fire players who “disrespected the flag.” However, Trump used a rather obscene word in place of players that many athletes took great offense to. In fact, over 100 more NFL players knelt the following week. Many players who didn’t kneel demonstrated support by placing hands on kneeling players shoulders or by locking arms. Some NFL teams like the Titans, Seahawks, and Steelers planned team protests that had players remain in the locker room. Other teams, like the Ravens, all knelt together before the anthem, enduring boos from their own fans.

During this slew of events, one thing has remained unchanged: Colin Kaepernick is still a free agent. He has not been signed by any NFL team since being released by the 49ers on March 3, 2017, a couple months after his original protest. Many people say this is due to him being the “leader” of the anthem protests. Others attribute his unemployment to the animosity that many NFL owners may feel towards him, particularly as an African-American male. They say that a league of all-white owners are afraid of a minority who is outspoken on issues such as institutional racism. Some claim that owners are hesitant to sign a player with such a controversial reputation. However, other people say Kaepernick’s unemployment is simply due to his mediocrity as a quarterback. This is a yet another subject of dispute in this nationwide issue.

Countless veterans and families of those who have served in the military have spoken out on this issue. Some condemn the protests, some support them. Recently, a player who served in the military for four years, Alejandro Villanueva, was the only person to come out of the Steelers locker room for the anthem. He stood. Afterwards, Villanueva spoke out about the situation: “People die for the flag. There’s no other way to put it. I wish I could stay at home. I wish we could all play ‘Call of Duty’ and not go to war … When I see the flag on the mission on the shoulder of a soldier, that reminds me that guy’s with me. That’s what the flag means to me, that’s what the flag means to a lot of veterans. I think my teammates respected this thoroughly; it was just not communicated and the plan did not allow them the chance to go out and support me.” The last statement is a reference to how Villanueva did not plan to make his “team look bad” by being the only person to stand outside the locker room during the anthem.

The way the situation panned out, it happened that Villanueva was the only Steeler present for the playing of the anthem. Despite his entire team staying in the locker room, Villanueva stated that he still respects their right to protest: “I can’t tell you I know what my teammates have gone through, so I’m not going to pretend like I have the righteous sort of voice to tell you that you should stand up for the national anthem. It’s protected by our constitution and our country. It’s the freedom of speech.”

Opinions vary across all platforms. Players kneel or don’t kneel for different reasons. Some interpret the act of kneeling during the anthem as direct disrespect for the armed forces, and some interpret the act as a way to raise awareness about systemic racism and police brutality in the United States.

Recently, Vice President Mike Pence left a Colts game after players knelt during the anthem. There were murmurings that this was simply a political stunt, but it is also possible that Vice President Pence was genuinely upset. Mike Pence has been a Colts fan for much of his life, and attended this game to honor legendary quarterback Peyton Manning’s induction into the Colts Hall of Fame.

However, he quickly departed after about twenty players knelt during the anthem, and said afterwards in a tweet: “I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem …While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem.” The White House spoke on the ordeal as well. According to the White House, Pence’s attendance at the game was long planned, but the walk-out was not.

Obviously, a person’s background and experiences impact their opinion on whether or not kneeling during the anthem is an acceptable form of protest.  So to speak, there is no “right answer,” simply because this issue is so much more complicated than one that is either “right” or “wrong.” One thing it seems most people can agree on is that kneeling is a peaceful act. Either way, it is certain that kneeling will be in the spotlight of the sports world for weeks, maybe months, to come.

Joseph Barile

Joe '21 is from River Vale, NJ. Besides writing for the sports section of the Phoenix, he plays on the Swarthmore Men’s Soccer team and works in admissions as a tour guide.

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