To Kneel or Not to Kneel

A political protest made by one player in the National Football League more than a year ago has grown into a national issue that has engaged people from Sunday football fans to the president of the United States. We spoke with Shaun Anderson, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the College of Communication and Fine Arts about political protest and social change in sports. Anderson studies sports as a platform in movements for social change, and he writes about athlete activism and the role of sport organizations in community development. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post, the World Policy Institute blog, Your Black World, the Toronto Star, and elsewhere. He was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

When we look at the protests taking place by kneeling during the national anthem at sports events, it’s as if people are observing two completely different things: either a protest of racial and social injustice or an act of disrespect toward a notion of American values. Why don’t Americans agree on what they’re witnessing?
The answer to that is that there are different ideals. We know that sport is a microcosm of society. It’s always been that way. Politics have always been in sport. When Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback took the knee during the national anthem, he thoroughly explained that this was his using his voice as a platform to get rid of police brutality against people of color. He also explained that he initially was sitting during the anthem, but then he met with veterans who told him, “You have the right to do what you want to do, but we prefer that you take a knee instead of sitting.” That’s why he switched to taking a knee. His mission is not to bring disrespect to the country. He bringing light to the ills that the country has seemingly not taken care of, which is police brutality, racial profiling and inequality against black and brown people. On the other side, are people saying, “You’re making millions of dollars, why are you complaining? Politics should stay out of sports.” If you look at football, players are predominantly black. They can’t help but talk about these things because they face them outside of the sports realm. To say that this is something that disrespects the country is totally false.

When did sports in the United States first become a platform for political protest and social criticism?
It’s been around for quite a while, but the most profound era was during the Civil Rights movement. You had Jim Brown, Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns, and Muhammed Ali, former heavyweight boxing champion, who stood up for religious freedom and the right to not fight in the Vietnam War. In 1968, Harry Edwards, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, led the Olympic Games protests involving U.S. sprinters John Carlos and Tommy Lee Smith. Those protests became prominent because of the racial injustices of the time. We also had Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in the mix. So, you had athletes who were looking at Civil Rights leaders and saying, “We have a platform, we need to do something as well.” Today, you have athletes saying, “We have to take a stand, because we see things that are similar to the past.”

Do you think Colin Kaepernick and other professional black athletes who are protesting are engaging not only in an act of protest but also in an act of persuasion?
Absolutely. To clarify that, it’s not an attempt of persuasion that says, “Come rescue us.” It’s more of an act of persuasion that says, “I’m participating in this activism because A, B and C are happening and we need A, B and C to stop.” They’re saying, “For those who are engaging in police brutality or racial profiling, you need to stop, and we are willing to sit down and come together to figure out how to do that.”

In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks demonstrated the injustice of a law that legalized segregation by refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. Her action showed America that a law on the books was unjust. How would you grade the effectiveness of kneeling during the national anthem as a symbolic act of protest that’s intended to highlight an injustice?
I would give it an A+. Why? Think about the past couple of years, and consider incidents such as the deaths of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a person in a Neighborhood Watch group, or Michael Brown, who was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the outbreak of riots afterward, especially in Baltimore. There have been calls saying people shouldn’t protest like that, or what would Dr. King say. Now, here’s a peaceful protest bringing light to the same issues, but here comes the same vitriol: “You can protest peacefully, but not like that.” So, what is the best way to protest? Kneeling during the national anthem is a very peaceful way to protest. Kaepernick was not bothering anybody, but yet there is much hate. Rosa Parks was despised at the time for her action. A lot of people are not used to these protests today, but maybe in three or four years people will say he did a great thing to bring light to this.

In the Civil Rights era, there were far fewer media outlets. Is there something about today’s communication environment, in which there has been an explosion of media outlets, that makes it harder to communicate a protest message instead of easier compared to then?
I want to say the former, that it helps get the message out more. But because of the way the message can be dissected, I think it’s more of the latter. The message gets chopped up in so many ways that it gets convoluted. Kaepernick has expressed several times why he’s doing what he’s doing, yet people remain confused about it. He created a website about his work to ward away issues of racism and police brutality. He established a know-your-rights campaign for youth in low-income communities. He has talked with military people prior to doing the things that he is doing. But still, the way that his message is being sliced up in the media is making things confusing.

This interview was posted on Sept. 28, 2017.