The world of American Football stood united over the weekend, across America and in London. In the face of a divisive and disrespectful attack from Donald Trump, players and executives came together, defending the right to protest an issue that has been simmering under the surface of the sport for years.
In August last year, Colin Kaepernick, then Quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, protested the pre-game national anthem. Dropping to one knee and refusing to “show pride in a flag…that oppresses black people and people of colour”. Since the end of that season, he has not played in a single game. Despite the supposedly constant demand for Quarterbacks in the NFL, protest in the face of American patriotism is apparently a deal breaker for team owners, Super Bowl runner-up or not. Since his initial protest a small number of others took place, all met with similar disdain by fans and NFL officials alike.
That all changed last week, when, largely unprompted, Donald Trump launched an attack on protesting players. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump said during a speech in Alabama on Friday night. Trump’s message to NFL owners and players was clear, and immediately reignited the debate Kaepernick started over a year ago.
For a tradition that only dates back to 2009, introduced to increase support and coverage for the US military, the apparent devotion fans and team officials have towards their players standing for the national anthem seems bizarre. Thankfully this was not the case this past weekend. All fines were off, all possibility of repercussions forgotten. The Jacksonville Jaguars, playing their annual game in London, were even joined on the Wembley pitch by their owner in a show of solidarity, arms linked.
In numerous statements hastily released in reply to Trump’s derogatory rant, a league-wide message of solidarity in the face of attack was put forward. Citing Trump’s “Divisive comments”, the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell advocated instead for “a sense of unity in our country and our culture”, a sentiment echoed throughout the league. Regardless of personal opinions or previous stances, owners would stand in defence of their team’s right to protest. They would defend their players from abject insult and disrespect. Somewhat surprisingly, a misguided rhetoric from Trump managed to unite an otherwise divided league, from top NFL executives to players on the practice squads. Furthermore, it truly brought the debate into the public eye, and across international news.
If only for one weekend, this debate seemed unavoidable. Fans sold their tickets and burnt their merchandise, deriding players in the stadium and over social media. Others praised the protesters, instead, attacking those who claimed it represented an affront to patriotism and the military. Regardless of position, however, the discussion was being had.
It is an accolade of sport that it has this ability to promote discussion among individuals. It has the unique position within media, advertisement, and social coverage to reach almost all members of society, and with that, influence opinion and understanding. Closer to home, the UEFA No To Racism campaign has been instrumental in combating a problem that has plagued European football for decades. We can hope the NFL protests go some way to solving a related problem within the US, albeit one entwined in American society, not localised to the sports field.
However, this may be the overarching problem of this discussion: what is actually being debated? When Kaepernick took a knee last year his aim and message were clear. He would not stand for the American flag when systemic racism remains rife with American society. Something had to change before he would. Yet with Trump’s attack, suddenly the focus shifted to the very object of protest. “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our country, flag and National Anthem” Trump wrote the day after the protests.
Suddenly the debate seems focused on whether these players are patriotic, whether kneeling in front of their flag or staying in the locker room during their national anthem is disrespectful to their country. Criticisms of the public’s concern over this incident, in contrast to their reaction to the countless instances of police brutality that have stoked the protests, seem few and far between and highlight the irony of their outrage. Instead of simply questioning ‘Why?’, the American public suddenly seems to be asking ‘Are they allowed?’.
Whether the protests continue, we will have to see. On Monday night Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee joined the protesters, kneeling on the House floor and defending the rights of players under the First Amendment. On the other side of the debate, aggrieved fans and viewers are increasingly making themselves heard, with television company DirecTV now offering refunds on NFL packages.
Despite a unique insight at the Wembley game, it seems unlikely that similar protests will start taking place within British sport. However, increased coverage and comment on those within the USA seems guaranteed, especially as they begin to appear within other American sports. Perhaps the real debate, the one Kaepernick tried to promote 13 months ago, is yet to emerge. Regardless, the discussion is taking place. As viewers sit down to watch the games across America and across the world this Sunday, it will be an unavoidable topic of conversation.