My job is to write about Michigan sports, but my identity is as an African-American woman.
After a week in which my own University saw racist messages written on residence hall doors and yelled at a rally outside the Union, the President of the United States spent the weekend criticizing NFL players for exercising their First Amendment right to kneel during the National Anthem. He called out NBA players in a separate yet similar fashion, but I’m going to focus on the NFL for now because, at this pace, these bi-weekly columns could become an ongoing series on the social issues raised by sports.
Today, the country’s focus turned to race and the hidden politics of identity.
It’s a concept that has been ignored at every turn. While sports are held up as a gold standard — a setting where people from every spectrum of society can come together for a few hours and share in the experience of a melting pot of emotions — there is a darker undercurrent inherent to their reverence in this country.
Between the white lines, players are seen as a collective, showered by a single spotlight. As long as the players are wearing uniforms that match those of the fans cheering for them from the stands or their couches, they are all part of the same team.
All of their successes are celebrated, and all of their failures are mourned. Together.
That tradition of unity is strongest before the whistle is even blown. When the National Anthem is played or performed, a chorus of people stand as one to honor the country they love and the citizens who risk their lives to protect it.
That’s why when Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee last year — to take a stand against social injustice — the chorus of voices began to split. Some praised his name while others defaced it. Some understood his message while others distorted it. Some followed his lead while others rebuked it.
Kaepernick, now unemployed by the NFL, put his job on the line because he put his identity first. In the realm of sports, that’s a controversial stance. It shouldn’t be.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has become a vocal advocate of his former quarterback, and he maintained that role Saturday at Purdue. Asked if he agreed with the President’s stance, Harbaugh made his position explicitly clear.
“No, I don’t agree with the President,” Harbaugh said. “That’s ridiculous. Check the Constitution.”
The First Amendment explicitly gives all U.S. citizens the right to freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly. The backlash facing Kaepernick shows that both of those rights have come under heavy fire.
In choosing to focus public discourse on a problem that has plagued the country since long before the current president took office, Kaepernick has pushed himself and his fellow NFL players into uncharted waters.
They have had a tough decision to make every Sunday since he first touched his knee to the turf. Kaepernick made his a year ago, and he no longer has a job because of it. Now, his colleagues have to decide whether or not they should stand with him by kneeling as well.
According to the President, NFL players who want the “privilege” of making millions of dollars should stand for the National Anthem. Otherwise, the owners should employ his signature line to take away said privilege.
The NFL is a majority African-American league. For the President to call NFL players who are protesting injustices toward their social group “sons of b——,” while deeming the participants of the alt-right rally in Charlottesville “very fine people,” speaks volumes about race and society in this day and age.
Athletes are seen as entertainers, and fans give them a stage to put on a show. In exchange for the ability to play a sport for a living, athletes are seen as beholden to the desires of the consumers who spend their hard-earned money to support them. They are told to be grateful for what they have, and are seen as spoiled when they voice their discontent.
The owners — whose multibillion-dollar empires are also sustained by these consumers — are in the same boat, but they notably don’t face the same wave of criticism. It’s just as notable that not one owner is Black.
The argument that athletes should stick to sports is not only detrimental for its demeaning nature. Its underlying notion devalues athletes as individuals, deeming them undeserving of the ability to speak their minds about issues pertinent to their lives. Their identity off the field is determined to be irrelevant.
So on Sunday, in response to the President’s comments, many NFL players brought their identity with them on the field.
Dozens of athletes from teams across the country knelt in silent protest, while three entire teams decided to stay in their locker rooms during the anthem. Many owners defended their players in official press releases, and some even took the field to participate in protests alongside their teams.
While that could be a sign of progress, photos spread on social media told an alternate tale. Of the players choosing to take a knee, not many were White. And Kaepernick is still nowhere to be seen on a football sideline.
In the press box at Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium, my fellow football beat writers and I happened to still be sitting as the National Anthem was set to begin. Another media member looked at us and asked if we were pulling a Kaepernick.
We weren’t, and as we hurried to stand up, I hesitated for a split second. I could have kept sitting, or even kneeled myself. All I would be risking is disconcerting looks from media members who I likely won’t ever see again after graduation.
My job at a student-run college newspaper is safe, but I stood up anyway. Every time I have since Kaepernick lost his job, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel conflicted about it.
The National Anthem is a fundamental tradition of our country, and I would prefer if everyone stood and saluted the American flag. But taking a knee now means that inequality in our society is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, and that is a cause I wholeheartedly support.
The First Amendment is a fundamental element of our country as well, and Kaepernick should not have been punished for exercising his.
Kaepernick started a conversation about the intrinsic link between race and sports. After the President’s pointed remarks, that conversation has reached a tipping point, and two clear sides have emerged.
Take a stand with the President or take a knee with Kaepernick.
Ashame can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.