University of Michigan humanities scholars convened Tuesday evening to analyze and discuss the political implications of professional football players kneeling during the national anthem. The High Stakes Culture lecture series of the Institute for the Humanities and the Humanities Collaboratory seeks to bring new perspectives to current cultural debates.

Angela Dillard, associate dean for undergraduate education and professor of Afroamerican and African studies, hosted the panel and worked to engage the audience in a discussion of what kneeling during a football game truly means.

This has been a big topic of conversation on both the national stage and in the University and Ann Arbor communities. In 2016, professional football player Colin Kaepernick made the decision to kneel during the national anthem at a football game to protest the oppression of people of color and issues of police brutality in their communities. At the University, Public Health graduate student Dana Greene also knelt in the Diag last semester to protest anti-Black racism, and a month later, several Ann Arbor city councilmembers knelt during the pledge of allegience at a council meeting in solidiarity with people of color. 

“We are living in a moment in which culture is high stakes and we as humanists can help understand these human ways,” Dillard said.

The panelists each introduced how their field of study aligns with the topic of kneeling during the national anthem. The patriotism ensued from sports allows sports, especially football, to transcend the world of sports into the world of politics.

Kristin Hass, associate professor in the Department of American Culture, who specializes in war, war memorials and soldiers, discussed the importance of United States military power and its relationship to patriotism.

“Nations are produced by culture,” Hass said. “Nations are the primary social organization for the 20th and 21st century and part of the 19th century. Almost always that culture is connected to soldiers and to sacrifice and to grief.”

Hass discussed how symbols of patriotism transform during times of instability, specifically instability of race. She referenced the role of the military as a form of patriotism. Since the Vietnam War, military service has been strictly volunteer-based. This change has led the government to find strategies to enhance patriotism in America in other ways.

“The United States government and the Department of Defense has been working very hard trying to find different strategy to change ways the people of the United States feel about war,” Hass said. “Since 2012, the Department of Defense has spent at least $10 million on paying teams to do specific on-field demonstrations of patriotism.”

In a discussion on the link between athletics and patriotism, Associate Professor of Musicology Mark Clague analyzed the foundations of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Following its creation by Francis Scott Key, the anthem was first played at a baseball game in 1862.

“Professional sports had figured out that attaching themselves to patriotism was good for business,” Clague said. “(NFL Commissioner) promised (Truman) that they would play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at every game forward.”

Matthew Countryman, associate professor in the Department of History and Department of American Culture, discussed how President Trump vocalized the issue of kneeling during the national anthem. He referenced the athletic and political intersection seen in athletes throughout history including Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali.

“Trump is, if nothing else, a brilliant vocalizer of a set of political concerns. I want to suggest here that he saw it as a political advantage to intervene to give voice to one source of the resentment,” Countryman said. “The position of black athletes as both highly successful and as politically quiescent or silent embodies a kind of appreciation or gratefulness in America society (that) is confirmation of our social transformation.”

LSA freshman Srimanisha Chilamkurthi said she and found herself intrigued by the topic of the High Stakes Culture lecture. She thinks it is important to cultivate dialogue about changing American culture. 

“I feel it’s really important for people to talk about the daily oppression that they face in their life and so for me, I think taking a knee is a symbol against the oppression that black people face,” Chilamkurthi said. “America has disrespected Black people a lot and so I think it’s a symbol against that to talk about their history and culture.”

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