By Timothy Belin, Columnist
MOUNT BERRY, Ga. – Over the past few years, sports have become an increasingly visible backdrop for social justice demonstrations. One of the most notable and most discussed has been the decision by players to kneel during the national anthem. Because it involves the anthem, a symbol of patriotic pride, this decision has been perceived by some to be a direct attack on their country, resulting in their opposition to an athlete’s right to share his or her views. In seeking to censor, this protest of protest amounts to a troubling hypocrisy.
There is nothing disrespectful about taking a knee. As Colin Kaepernick explained when he went from sitting out the anthem to kneeling during the anthem, kneeling was suggested to him by an army veteran who told him how soldiers do the same for their fallen comrades. The symbolic gesture of kneeling is, therefore, a solemn and reverent one, as can also be seen by the multitude of other instances where one would take a knee, such as when proposing to a significant other or in paying respects to monarchy. In none of those situations is kneeling considered disrespectful. Why, then, should kneeling before a football game be regarded as different? While the gesture may not conform to the arbitrary tradition that wider society expects, neither can it be truthfully claimed to be in any way offensive to American ideals. It is simply a peaceful and respectful way to be visible and, as visible, to spark a discussion about bigger issues.
If you pay close attention, you might notice that players are not the only ones kneeling. Camera crews, for example, will more often than not be crouched or kneeling to get their shots, for help stabilizing their equipment. No one complains about this; they are simply doing their jobs. Is the fight for social justice less important than snapping photos? If it is not strictly a player’s duty to make use of their platforms, I would argue it should be encouraged, for few have such a meaningful impact as those with the wide reach and influence of professional athletes. It might not be their job per se, and they would probably be the first ones to say so. Athletes would most likely prefer to focus on their sport. But, until those whose job it is to address these issues do their jobs rather than promoting baseless conspiracy theories, sleeping with minors, inciting insurrections, fleeing in the midst of state-wide catastrophes, or stealing money from their constituents, these athletes are, sadly, one of the only realistic options we have.
If we claim that the playing of the anthem is a solemn moment with strict rules of conformity, why do those performing this sacred “hymn” get so much license to improvise? One only needs to look at the latest Super Bowl featuring Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan’s country-lite take on the anthem or to remember Fergie’s infamous 2018 NBA-All Star rendition to realize the extent to which these performances may vary. Are either of these considered to be “un-American”? No, they are simply a different yet still respectful way to commemorate. The outrage has nothing to do with an affront to the anthem, the country, or the flag, and everything to do with the message conveyed by the equally symbolic act of kneeling.
There are two reasons one might oppose the social justice message. The first and most obvious is cited by people who prefer not to acknowledge social injustice and institutional racism. Those who hold this view are a hopeless cause, and I can do nothing for them except hope they return to the secluded fringes of society. Others who claim not to be racist, maybe because they “don’t see color” or “have a black friend,” will proudly assert that they support equality and are only complaining because they do not want politics to become mixed in with sports. This stance, however, is just as misguided.
Social justice, also known, in the case of the Black Lives Matter movement, as the right to not be discriminated against on the basis of the color of one’s skin, including the right not be murdered by those meant to protect you, should never have become a political debate in the first place. That even the most basic of human rights have become a partisan issue is merely a bleak reflection of moral depravity. We would do well to recognize that the very inclusion of the national anthem as part of the pageantry of professional sporting events is political, as are the frequent displays of military power such as fly-overs and officer tributes. These are overtly political statements that serve to confuse the borders of patriotism, nationalism, and militarism. Thus, criticizing protests for injecting politics into sports is to hypocritically ignore the politicization of, among other things, propriety and patriotism at football games. How is it that few seem bothered by this?
Few wonder why we need fighter jets to blitz over the stadium in a trail of red, white, and blue in order to enjoy a game of football. Few question any of these militaristic trappings because we have all been conditioned to accept the political militarization of sports as the status quo, even though no other democratic country in the world does the same. In addition, many foreign athletes are integral to the success of their otherwise American teams, yet they are asked to demonstrate fealty to American patriotism by standing for an anthem not their own.
Those who complain of players kneeling out of conviction demonstrate ignorance by demanding blind, even robotic conformity to hypocritical narratives they do not understand themselves. If they genuinely believe that players taking a knee during the national anthem is unacceptable and that politics should be divorced from the games, they should probably petition to remove the anthem altogether.