As videos of the violence and civil unrest in Charlottesville, Va., took over my social media timelines, I couldn’t help but think this is what Colin Kaepernick has been talking about. Kaepenick repeatedly mentioned he wasn’t proud of the nation America has become in regards to race relations.
Yet as I feared, here he is still without a job, with a rally scheduled for Aug. 23 at 5 p.m. ET at the NFL offices on Park Avenue in New York City to protest the capable QB’s curious unemployment.
The sad outcome of Kaepernicks’s stance is that the conversation he wanted to have around systemic racism has spiralled into people protesting the protest. The reaction to what he did has been harsher than the reaction to the factors that led him to do it.
Now a year since Kaeprnick took his infamous knee, it is clear that his protest has given other players license to do the same and use the national anthem as their pulpit to raise social awareness.
During each week of the 2016 NFL regular season, a different player not named Colin Kaepernick protested during the U.S. national anthem. Now that Kaeprnick has seemingly been blackballed to start 2017, others have carried the torch in the current pre-season, including Marshawn Lynch and Michael Bennett last week.
Bennett took things a step further last week when post-game he implored white players to step up as well.
“It would take a white player to really get things changed,” Bennett told ESPN’s SportsCenter last Wednesday. “Because when somebody from the other side understands and they step up and they speak up about it, it would change the whole conversation. Because you bring somebody who doesn’t really have to be a part of the conversation, making himself vulnerable in front of it, I think when that happens, things will really take a big jump.”
During last Thursday night’s pre-season game following Bennett’s comments, Charlottesville native Chris Long placed his hand on the shoulder of his Philadelphia Eagles teammate Malcolm Jenkins, whose fist in the air anthem protest dates back to last season.
“I think it’s a good time for people that look like me to be here for people that are fighting for equality,” Long told reporters post-game.
“I think it’s not just a hard week for someone being from Charlottesville. It’s a tough week for America. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘You need white athletes to get involved in the anthem protest.’ I’ve said before that I’ll never kneel for an anthem because the flag means something different to everybody in this country, but I support my peers,’” he explained.
“If you don’t see why you need allies for people that are fighting for equality right now, I don’t think you’ll ever see it,” he said. “My thing is, Malcolm’s a leader and I’m here to show support as a white athlete.”
— Malcolm Jenkins (@MalcolmJenkins) August 18, 2017
Jenkins said he appreciated the gesture while acknowledging that it also “changed the dynamic of the whole conversation.”
Next, Justin Britt of the Seattle Seahawks followed up and put his hand on Michael Bennett as he sat for the anthem Saturday night before the Seahawks faced the Minnesota Vikings.
“You can say it’s leadership, but I just did it because I support Mike. Being from Missouri and seeing things that are happening around the world that aren’t right, I just felt like I wanted to take a stand and be with Mike. Hopefully, what I do encourages others to go out and look at it and kind of really see what is going on and not just be blind to it,” Britt explained.
As a quarterback, Derek Carr is the highest-profile white player to make his voice heard on this subject. Also on Saturday night, during the anthem Carr put his arm around his Oakland Raiders teammate Khalil Mack, who himself wasn’t protesting the anthem but standing.
“We wanted to show them that it’s OK for a white kid and a black kid who come from two different neighbourhoods to grow up and love one another and be best friends,” Carr told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
But Carr stopped short of calling it a protest.
“We’re not doing anything like that. What we wanted to do is show all the kids that look up to me, that look up to him that white kids, black kids, brown kids — blue, green, it doesn’t matter — can all be loving to each other. That’s what me and Khalil are. We’re best friends and we love one another. The only reason we did that was to unify people and unify the people that look up to us.”
Going even further, on Aug. 21 tight end Seth DeValve joined his Cleveland Browns teammates Jamie Collins, Christian Kirksey, Duke Johnson, Isaiah Crowell, Kenny Britt, Ricardo Louis, Jabrill Peppers and Jamar Taylor in taking a knee for the anthem before a pre-season game against the Giants. DeValve is the first white player to kneel for the anthem since Kaepernick started his protest last season.
DeValve is a great litmus test for where this is heading. For starters, he’s Caucasian. Like Heather Heyer, who lost her life in Virginia, he is not overtly the aggrieved party in the cause he’s fighting for. Just as important, he’s a second-year player from Princeton. He’s not a star. He’s actually very disposable from a roster perspective. The fact that he had the empathy and courage to take a knee is a sign that these issues are impacting not just the minority community, but have evolved to a greater audience who all feel the responsibility to find solutions to the problem.
The average NFL career lasts three years according to the union, and six years according to the league. Either way, it’s not long. Given employment is far from certain, the risk these protesting NFL players are taking is admirable.
NFL executives are also learning to tread carefully when it comes to this issue.
New 49ers GM John Lynch was widely criticized for his view on the anthem protests when he said Thursday: “I think this game brings people together. So, I think personally when I see that, I think that’s divisive.”
After receiving some blow back for his use of the word “divisive,” Lynch hedged his comments the next day, which shows that the public perception is changing.
Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson got in hot water last week for saying he wasn’t in support of his players protesting the anthem. This past week he walked those comments back while reading a prepared statement: “I respect and support their right for peaceful protest, a right afforded to every American. We’ve always made it clear to our players that they should embrace the platform they have as an NFL player to improve our community and use their platform in a positive, thoughtful, respectful manner.”
Well, Jackson opened that door and the next chance they got, his players burst right through it.
The President of the United States has been criticized for not using his power to speak down the divisive forces in his country. White players in the NFL are starting to use their power to big up the marginalized voices in their locker rooms.
Maybe now the conversation will be less about who is protesting and more about what they are taking a stand for.