In the past few years, a wave of public protests has taken place nationwide in response to a series of controversies. There have been marches for and against the Black Lives Matter movement, demonstrations in response to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and a Women’s March in January which protested the inauguration of Donald Trump. Recently, there have been protests in the NFL, the “Take a Knee” movement has infuriated millions of Americans while inspiring millions of others. In addition to bringing national attention to specific issues, whether police brutality or women’s rights, the public outpouring of dissent has brought up the question of what constitutes an appropriate protest. Specifically, the issue is whether or not there is a proper time and place for a demonstration to occur or for people to express their outrage.
Many people observing the demonstrations in the NFL feel that a football game is not the time for a protest. Understandably, viewers want to tune in and cheer for their respective teams while not having to think about the current political climate. Watching football for many citizens is a time for escapism and entertainment. While millions of Americans are kneeling in solidarity with players protesting police brutality, others assert that a protest has no place in professional sports. While this is a valid stance to hold in regards to the subject, the other side of the argument is articulated by writer John Scalzi who once stated, “It’s not an effective protest if it’s not pissing people off.”
The entire point of a protest or demonstration is to seize the public’s attention and force a discussion. Some of the most well-known historic examples include the marches and sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement which fostered discussion on the discrimination and inequality plaguing black Americans. A more contemporary example would be the Greenpeace demonstrations that took place in multiple countries all calling for the release of the Arctic 30, environmental activists who were illegally jailed by the Russian government back in 2013. NFL players participating in the Take a Knee protest have effectively decided to use their celebrity and platform on a national stage in order to make a statement, and it’s worked.
When people are outraged, they are talking about the issue. There is news coverage and the protest is trending on social media, which means the demonstration was a success. The more discourse that occurs, the more likely a change will happen. In speaking on the nature of protest, another writer, Jeffrey G. Duarte, states “The purpose of protest to provoke a response. Trouble is some people prefer to address the appropriateness of the protest, not the issue.”
In regards to the Take a Knee protest, critics have slammed former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who started the demonstrations last year. Outspoken officials, including current President Trump and Vice President Pence, have denounced Kaepernick and other players essentially for disrespecting the American flag. Asserting that kneeling during the national anthem is not appropriate and instead is disrespectful can be seen as an attempt to invalidate the protest and take attention away from the real issue affecting the country: unchecked police brutality on African American communities. Last year alone, as reported by media outlet Aljazeera.com, “police killed at least 1,093 people. Although African Americans comprise roughly 12 percent of the country’s population, they were almost a quarter of those killed by police.”
Some say that kneeling during the national anthem shows contempt for the flag and the soldiers who fought for the country. However, one of the reasons veterans fight is so citizens can have the right to protest at all and criticize the government or the nation’s flag if they so choose. But again, originally the players were not even opposing the government or the flag; they were opposing unwarranted police violence.
According to a report published by CBS Sports, Kaepernick initially planned to protest by sitting on the bench during the national anthem. Green Beret vet and former Seahawks player, Nate Boyer, spoke to Kaepernick and convinced him it was more respectful of the troops to kneel instead of sitting during the anthem. Boyer stated, “We sorta came to a middle ground where he [Kaepernick] would take a knee alongside his teammates. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”
Ironically, the same players being criticized as unpatriotic are participating in one of the most respectful and patriotic freedoms that America holds dear. In many countries, public protests are severely limited by authoritative governments. The fact that Americans have the liberty to express their discontentment allows for the country to evolve and progress toward a better future. When free speech and the exchange of diverse ideas are restricted, a society often stagnates. Writer James Baldwin once stated, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”