T’arah Inam-McDermott looks at the US national anthem protests started by Colin Kaepernick and what this means for freedom of speech in sport
In August 2016 Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback, made headlines by refusing to stand during the national anthem. When questioned about his actions he responded: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.”
This silent, subtle and initially solitary protest has kick-started a powerful movement in US sport, which has been both provocative and far-reaching. A debate is now raging, with race-fuelled, anti-patriotism at its centre. While athletes are clearly influential figures, the issue of free speech echoes in the background, alongside contractual obligations and threats of legal proceedings. Is it right? Donald Trump doesn’t think so.
As with most news involving the leader of the “free world”, the heart of this story has been obscured in a mess of twitter drama and accusations surrounding patriotism. This has left many questioning the role that patriotism plays in sport, and to what extent athletes can exercise free speech, at the expense of the star-spangled banner.
Therefore, it is worth considering the motivations behind Kaepernick’s refusal to stand. Unsurprisingly, the NFL star is not the first athlete to use his platform to protest racial injustice in America. John Carlos and Tommie Smith were sent home from the 1968 Olympics for actioning the “Black Power” salute during the national anthem. As too were Vince Mathews and Wayne Collett from the 1972 Olympics.
Elsewhere, in 1996 the NBA suspended Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand during the national anthem. He later explained that he would not stand for any form of nationalistic ideology. For their actions, these men faced harsh and immediate consequences. However, despite their swift addition to Trump’s “to-nuke” list, the penance for this current crop of social activists is unknown.
With such a divisive issue, come very different responses. Robert Kraft and Steve Bisciotti, owners of the New England Patriots and The Baltimore Ravens respectively, have showed unrelenting support for their players actions. While Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan elected to link arms with his players during the anthem to exhibit his admiration for their cause.
Conversely, it has been reported that similar actions taken by O’Bannon High School football players in Mississippi have received a significant backlash. The players involved have subsequently been banned from competing by district authorities. Rather fittingly to the ambiguity of this issue, the school’s superintendent Larry Green described the actions as “breaking an unwritten rule.”
This racial injustice movement has accelerated over the past year, as Kaepernick has received continued support by his fellow athletes. This, unsurprisingly, has irked Donald Trump. In September 2017, Trump reignited the controversy by an inflammatory – and typically tactful – tweet exclaiming: “get that son of a bitch off the field right now – YOU’RE FIRED!”. This insulting and divisive message has done little to ease the tension surrounding the debate, which had remained comparatively dormant over the preceding months.
On the following Sunday, more than 200 athletes across America sat, knelt and prayed in solidarity with Kaepernick, as the national anthem fell on deaf ears. In 2016, a poll found that 72% of people felt that the protests were unpatriotic. However, amidst the fall-out from Trump’s tweet, it was found that 60% of Americans felt that Trump was wrong to criticise the players. Is there a solution in sight? Perhaps not.
Nate Boyer, a former Army Green Beret and Seattle Seahawks long-snapper, penned an open letter to both Trump and Kaepernick suggesting that “Colin Kaepernick and President Trump should be the ones uniting our country together.” He continued, assuring us that progress is possible if “two men sit in a room and talk”. Let’s hope so, Nate. Although, I think we should expect continued controversy before an end is in sight.
Fundamentally, this protest is not about the national anthem or the stars & stripes. This isn’t even about the role of patriotism in sport. This is about freedom of speech and the right to protest. What stands in the way? Trump’s regime of divisiveness and persistent threats, all to the tune of his own ego incessantly humming: “this is not about race.”
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