After his unfortunate demise from the national football league in 2016, it had appeared as if Colin Kaepernicks protests may not have been much more than an exercise in futility. The league as a whole had seemingly moved on and began to forget the whole situation until September of 2017 when President Donald Trump took to Twitter, his preferred method of communication, to attack any players and owners who had partaken or allowed any sort of protest during the national anthem on match day.
@realDonaldTrump “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” – Sep 25, 2017
Throughout the weekend, Trump called on the NFL to fire any players who protest during the national anthem and retweeted someone calling for a boycott against the NFL. This added fuel to the fire but more importantly, Trump managed to diverge the public and media attention towards the issue of patriotism rather than police brutality. This misses the point completely. As a matter of fact, when Kaepernick jump started the protest in August 2016, he was explicit in his reasons for doing so, “to me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick wasn’t disrespecting the American flag or national anthem, he was protesting systemic racism, more specifically the brutality towards ethnic minorities at the hands of police forces across America. This issue is very important and what Trump managed to do was distract from Kaepernick’s point and thus hiding the facts. The facts being that according to a study conducted by the Guardian (2016), black Americans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be killed by police when accounting for population. In 2016, police killed black Americans at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, compared to 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans. Police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement have both previously been a point of humour and mockery for Trump, so it is unsurprising to see him is trying to spin any protests to do with race and police brutality in the least charitable ways possible.
The NFL protests are the latest in a long history of public objections made by black athletes in response to actions of the American government dating back as far as 1936, when Jesse Owens won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in a time where Hitler was trying to re-build Nazi Germany and America was still very much a segregated country. Fast forward thirty-two years to the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City where Tommy Smith and John Carlos each raised a black gloved fist in the air during the national anthem in response to the subhuman treatment of African-Americans during that time, they were largely ostracized for their actions upon their return to the US but the event is now regarded as one of the most overt political statements in history. World champion boxer Mohammed Ali was also vocal in his criticism of America’s involvement in Vietnam at that time and perhaps the most frighteningly similar example to Kaepernick is that of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, more specifically his swift exit from the NBA in the 90’s after he declared the US flag as a symbol of oppression and refused to stand for the national anthem. Much like Kaepernick, no owners and coaches were willing to attract that sort of attention by signing Abdul-Rauf to their teams.
These athletes have recognised that they have a bigger voice than many others and have chosen to use that voice to shed light on numerous matters of race throughout the the Last 70 years. Although not everyone supports this. Alt-right political commentators like Tomi Lahren have criticized Kaepernick and others who have actively taken a stand against these issues on the basis that as successful, wealthy, black athlete, one should be grateful for the good fortune America has ‘provided’ them and not concern themselves with being outspoken on issues against the status quo. This is toxic logic and is completely unacceptable, if black men and women in positions of power and fame aren’t actively speaking out on these issues, it seems slightly hypocritical to be outraged next time they are made privy to the next public example of racial injustice. The only way to even possibly begin fixing racial disparities in the world is if people of all financial, social and ethnic backgrounds create a dialogue and communicate each other’s ideas. Black athletes in America find themselves in a unique position of power where their voice can actually hold more weight than the average person and so the actions of Kaepernick and others should not only be defended, but encouraged.
* Initially published in SLUDGE ONLINE