When Jerry Kneels: On the Shallow Politics of the NFL

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On August 26, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, made headlines for sitting on the bench during the presentation of the national anthem during a preseason game. By the time he transitioned into kneeling for the anthem, a modification made specifically as a show of respect to the military, the national media had honed its eyes on his protest of the systematic brutalization of black Americans at the hands of police officers. In the year that followed, Kaepernick’s saga became one of the most visible in professional sports, costing him his job and transforming him into both hero and pariah.

On September 25, 2017, Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, kneeled arm-in-arm with his team prior to the playing of the national anthem. Some may be tempted to perceive Jones’s kneel as a sign that Kaepernick’s protest gained enough traction to spark an honest, good-faith conversation about the realities of racial injustice in America, from mass incarceration laws to indictment-less police killings. If this were true, one would be forced to overlook the fact that Jerry Jones felt enough apathy towards these issues as to donate $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inauguration. It would be difficult to reconcile his supporting Trump given his evident glee that Kaepernick had been blacklisted by the league’s owners, of course, but billionaires can be complex.

Don’t give in to that temptation: Jones’ craven opportunism and that of his fellow NFL owners who elected to visibly protest on Sunday should be met with outright derision, scorn, and mockery.

Kaepernick’s protest and the gamut of predictable outrage it ran offered a crystal-clear look into the way in which social movements are co-opted and politics are morphed into spectacle in our times. His protest, it bears repeating ad nauseum, began when Barack Obama was president. It was not a protest of specific leadership, a lack of decorum, or politics as they are shallowly digested in the realm of American discourse. Rather, it was an attempt to highlight a deep, systemic inequity in American society. Kaepernick was not engaging in cosmetic politics: his — infamous, amongst the sports commentariat — decision to abstain from voting in the 2016 presidential election presented clearly his disenchantment with the way in which not just the conventionally right-wing but also the ostensibly left-leaning party have failed to make good-faith efforts toward a more racially equitable society.

In the rich tradition of the American response to black protest, Kaepernick was largely derided and reviled. When black communities protest the lack of indictments for visible police killings in their communities, they are often met with a militarized response or mocked for destroying their communities. When Kaepernick protested, silently and peacefully, he was accused of making an affront toward America’s favorite political avatar: “the troops.” In our post-Iraq America, the troops are everything and nothing. One must support unnecessary, unjust wars that put actual troops in immediate danger, costing many of them their lives or their mental, physical, and emotional capacities. If one does not support these wars, they must be ‘against the troops.’ One must not protest societal inequalities in front of the American flag or during the performance of the national anthem — to do so is a slap in the face of the troops (it should be noted that NFL players only began standing for the national anthem in 2009, in a very heavy-handed recruiting effort for, you guessed it, the troops). That this ploy by the conservative commentariat is deeply cynical should come as no surprise, yet it is still worth noting that this lionization of the troops has nothing to do with actual servicemen or veterans themselves. The legacy of Pat Tillman, the ex-NFL safety killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, is often used as a cudgel against players like Kaepernick who choose to protest; when faced with the fact that Tillman was a leftist in who revered Noam Chomsky and called the Iraq War “so fucking illegal,” however, his bad-faith mythmakers drop him altogether.

This protest, it bears repeating, is not about “the troops.” That the goalposts of dialogue surrounding Kaepernick’s actions almost immediately shifted toward whether or not he was disrespecting the troops, however, served as a sign to come in the ongoing dilution of the meaning of his protest.

Fast forward a year, and Colin Kaepernick lost his job. As a result of what is effectively a blacklisting of the quarterback for his political stances, Kaepernick remains unemployed while NFL teams start statistically inferior quarterbacks like Brian Hoyer and Josh McCown every Sunday. Over this year, Kaepernick was joined by a small but significant group of players who chose to kneel either in solidarity with Kaepernick or as an explicit response to issues of racial inequality in line with Kaepernick’s message. Simultaneously, there were players and pundits who displayed no small show of hand-wringing regarding the validity of Kaepernick’s protest, the role of politics in sports (ironic, given the aforementioned reason that players stand for the anthem in the first place), and the like. Such is the nature of a public protest: it is meant to divide, it is meant to make people feel uncomfortable. The realities of race in America are a deeply uncomfortable issue.

By last week, however, the protests became divisive in a completely meaningless sense. As a result of President Trump’s insistence that players who choose to kneel should be fired, in which he referred to these mostly black athletes as “sons of bitches,” suddenly the protest was no longer about police brutality or racial inequality. Entire teams kneeled, locked arms, or did not come out of the locker room for the national anthem as a show of… what? Depending on who you ask, this display of righteousness was about free speech, solidarity, or our Fox News grandfather-in-chief’s impropriety. In reality, it was a grand display of the egos of NFL owners and players alike clashing with that of Trump.

There is nothing Trump said in his Alabama tantrum regarding the NFL that should have shocked anybody. He has used far lewder language than “son of a bitch.” He has attempted to suppress dissent more significantly than he did in that speech. He has displayed far more callousness towards the lives of black men, having gone so far as to explicitly encourage police to rough up suspects. The only thing that changed was that he was rude to the NFL.

In this rudeness, Roger Goodell saw an attack on his beloved shield and an opportunity to brand the league as one of unity, whatever that is supposed to mean. In Trump’s words, owners saw the ugliness of their racially and politically motivated refusal to pay Kaepernick and lashed out. And for the players that previously criticized Kaepernick or refused to protest only to make a self-righteous show of it on Sunday, Trump’s rudeness toward them evidently outpaces the horrors of unpunished police brutality on the list of America’s pressing issues.

It is easy to confuse the mass protests across the NFL last week with a belated social awakening of a league plagued by recent and ongoing scandals. It was not. What transpired, rather, was the final defanging of Kaepernick’s vision, protest, and movement. By doing little more than embodying a typical angry uncle Facebook post at a rally, Trump offered the NFL a chance to look righteous, valiant, and unified. A league that systematically turns a blind eye to domestic violence and gifts its alumni with crippling degenerative brain disease was allowed to affect morality and solidarity because Trump was rude.

Now, we have a world in which Sports Illustrated’s protest cover features the images of the clownish Shahid Kahn, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars (and, of course, Trump donor), and the ghoulish Roger Goodell. Colin Kaepernick, the only person to pay a price for protesting, is exempt from this vision of solidarity, free speech, and glory. Now we have a world in which a protest against a systemic ill that is enabled by both parties has turned into one against Trump not for his warmongering or corruption but for his rudeness. In just one week, a potent, driven, and intentionally alienating political statement turned into the visual equivalent of the online liberal #resistance  mocking Trump for saying covfefe. It is politics as style, not substance. It turns issues of life or death for black Americans into terrain of the same culture war as boycotting Chik-fil-a or asking Starbucks employees to write “Trump” on your cup. It is an embarrassment, and one toward which you do not owe an ounce of goodwill.

Or, you never know, maybe Jerry Jones realized that it’s finally time to have a discussion about police brutality.




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