What Does It Mean to Kneel?

What Does It Mean to Kneel?

I find myself unusually distressed this week. In part because my dad is having surgery on Friday, since even though it’s routine, strange things happen to aging bodies under stress. But what’s really getting to me is what’s swirling around football’s pregame rituals. Over the last few days I really can’t believe what I’ve been hearing about the NFL protests – I find it even hard to call it that…it’s no protest, it’s a pose – and I just can’t figure out why people are losing their minds.

Kneeling has been a sign of respect for centuries. You kneel to show respect to kings, kneel to propose to you girlfriend, and you kneel on the field when another player is injured. It only seems to be in the last six months that kneeling is an insult to American democracy. This thought from a friend echoed my thinking:

It’s a sign of respect and concern when someone is hurt, but more than that putting players in that position means they’re not moving, chattering, or doing anything else than could look disrespectful. It also sends a signal to the stands that the injury is serious, and everyone should be concerned. […]

Taking a knee has always been a sign of respect and deference in Football and it’s also a pretty universal sign of respect in general. Let’s be brave and address the issues at hand.

I Refused

13 months ago Colin Kaepernick sat on the 49ers bench during the anthem. When asked, he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” While I disagreed with his reasoning, particularly denying the flag and the country as a whole for the actions of a small minority, I understood.

When I was 9 or 10 I first learned about slavery. I hadn’t really known anything about it before then, and it hit me pretty hard. A few days later, we stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in class (yes, I’ve been around a while). I stood, I put my hand on my heart…and I simply couldn’t do it. I put my hand to my side and stood silently until it was over, then I sat. I haven’t recited the pledge since.

When I was in high school and the band would play the anthem at our basketball games, I stood with my hands behind my back. I looked to the flag, but something was just…off. I didn’t sing. I barely listened. After a while I noticed that none of my black teammates participated either. I started paying attention to athletes, because sports is about the only time any of us hear the anthem. I remember noticing over and over, black athletes refrained from participating, choosing to stand silently with their hands down or behind their backs.

Nobody really noticed. I don’t think anyone really cared enough to pay attention. They were too busy shouting “ROCKETS” when the home team’s name came up in the lyrics, or seeing how long they could sing the word “brave” without passing out, to notice that half the team wasn’t participating in their show of patriotism.

I Learned

Over time I learned more about who we are, and what we stand for. I learned the lengths the framers went to in crafting founding documents that could end slavery while preserving the Union. That in spite of the cultural behaviors and entrenched beliefs of the people who wrote the Constitution, the document they left us with made the end of slavery and eventual racial and gender equality inevitable. 

I looked at how the people of this country have changed over the last century, even in my lifetime. I talked to friends who had come back from war, and family members who were going. I saw people united after 9/11, saw a black president elected. Slowly, looking at the flag seemed normal, if quite a bit different than it had before that initial awkening.

Then, in 2012 I was watching the Olympics and felt a little swell of pride whenever the US took a medal. They were my team, right up there with the Mavs, Steelers, and Pens. In 2014, during the World Cup, I actually felt emotional pain when Portugal eliminated us in the 95th minute. These players were my people, and I hurt with them. By 2016 everything had changed.

I was sitting in the living room with my kids. The Olympics were on in the background. My son went upstairs to the XBox (as he usually does) and my daughter hung behind. Just then a monumental thing happened: The US won the Women’s Eight rowing final. A short while later they came for the medal ceremony. My daughter was just about to leave the room when the anthem started. I grabbed her and we sat in front of the TV.

“Daddy, why are we sitting here?”

I really wish I could remember my exact answer. I’m sure it wasn’t very eloquent. And she was 7 years old, so she probably didn’t care. But we sat there through the anthem, and in spite of the fact that I have absolutely no interest in rowing (or lake sports in general), I felt a huge swell while it was playing. That’s where I am now.

NFL 2017

But none of that has anything to do with what’s going on now.

Kneeling during the anthem started as a one man protest. But now that protest is about something entirely different. I think Dale Hansen (who I rarely agree with) nailed it:

Donald Trump has said he supports a peaceful protest because it’s an American’s right… But not this protest, and there’s the problem: The opinion that any protest you don’t agree with is a protest that should be stopped.

Martin Luther King should have marched across a different bridge. Young, black Americans should have gone to a different college and found a different lunch counter. And college kids in the 60’s had no right to protest an immoral war.

I served in the military during the Vietnam War… and my foot hurt, too. But I served anyway.

My best friend in high school was killed in Vietnam. Carroll Meir will be 18 years old forever. And he did not die so that you can decide who is a patriot and who loves America more.

This is my country and that’s my flag, and they’re yours, too. They also belong to Larry Fitzgerald, Julius Peppers, and Colin Kaepernick, and…

I take no offense. I don’t think veterans at the end of the day take any offense. They actually signed up and fought so that somebody could take a knee and protest peacefully whatever it is that their hearts desire.

Alejandro Villanueva (Steelers, former Army Ranger)

“A lot of people think we’re disrespecting the flag and the military,” Cooks said after the game, “but my father and uncle were Marines, and I have the utmost respect for the men and women that fight for our freedom.”

Brandin Cooks (Patriots)

“As a team, we wanted to be unified in our actions today. The players jointly decided this was the best course of action. Our commitment to the military and our community is resolute and the absence of our team for the national anthem shouldn’t be misconstrued as unpatriotic.”

Tennessee Titans

Here’s a question that keeps getting lost in all this: who made this about the military? It wasn’t Kaepernick. It wasn’t any of the players. It was people who couldn’t handle thinking about the issue being raised, so they deflected, changed the argument, and started shouting amongst themselves about the new reality. Something that happens far too often.

There are very real issues behind Kaepernick’s ham-handed statement about why he first protested.

Black Americans are “incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate” of white Americans and are almost six-times more likely to be arrested for drug use than white Americans, despite not being more likely to use drugs. Unarmed black males are twice as likely to be killed by the police than unarmed white males and black defendants also receive 20% longer sentences than white Americans for the same crime.

But based on the responses of football fans, none of these even merit a response or discussion. Because football players are rich and (to them) the American flag is more important than (black) American lives.

That last sentence is not something I ever thought I’d believe about people. I always believed that people would care if they knew. That if I showed you that something was wrong with the world, you’d want to fix it. That if they could see what was happening, that they’d have compassion. But that is apparently not true. And this week proves it.

People were first outraged at what they saw as an insult to the flag, and by extension to the country. I understood. But now, a year later, with all the clear explanations, the President can’t get it through his head that it was a peaceful protest about a specific set of issues – not a blanket condemnation of the flag and all it stands for. And now it’s elevated.

Kneeling at the anthem is still, in part, about the “criminal injustice system”. But since Friday it’s become about personal freedom. Am I, as an American, free to do as I please? Must I bow (metaphorically) to the Man, who demands it? Is there only one way to be patriotic? Why have the reactions of the last 72 hours felt suspiciously like something that would happen in Soviet Russia?

Last night I went to an NHL game, and these questions were swirling in my head as I anticipated the singing of the anthem. There was no controversy there, because black people don’t play hockey. But it was on my mind. I chose to take my old pose – hands behind my back (I sang this time, though…can’t resist).

Part of me wishes I’d taken the knee.

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