In the weeks and months following the refusal by Rosa Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger and move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, no one could have known that her simple act of defiance in 1955 would become an iconic event in the civil rights movement. Similarly, it is far too early to gauge the impact of the decision by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem that precedes the start of each NFL game.
Kaepernick has, however, brought the debate over race relations in general and police brutality in particular into the mainstream of white American culture in a manner that few other ways could. He has broached the subject through the religion that is an integral part of that culture – the civic religion of football.
If football is a religion then NFL players are its icons. To 49er fans Kaepernick is not simply a black man; he is someone with whom they identify and share a common cause. He is a member of their team and their fates rise and fall together. Although his status in the ecclesiastical hierarchy may have declined somewhat because of his performance last season Kaepernick and 49er fans have a bond that, for some fans, is almost as strong as the bonds that they have with members of their own families.
If the movement continues to expand, as it appears it will, the fans of other NFL teams will begin to see the issues that he has raised in a slightly different light as their favorite players embrace the protest. White fans that would not pay the slightest attention to something said by a member of the Black Lives Matter movement will at least hear what the players are telling them. That is how the process of changing minds begins.
The sheer size of the NFL “congregation” is staggering. About half of all Americans identify themselves as football fans, and television ratings bear that out. In February Super Bowl 50 attracted 111.9 million viewers in the United States. Sunday Night Football, which averaged 22.5 million viewers per week last season, has been America’s highest-rated primetime show for five consecutive years. About 77% of NFL fans are white but 68% of the players are black. Kaepernick and the other protesters have an unparalleled opportunity to convey their message to a white audience.
The movement likely would have stalled had it not received support from an unexpected source: Military veterans. In response to critics who claimed that Kaepernick’s gesture was insulting to members of the military there was a significant outpouring of support for Kaepernick from military veterans. The critics failed to recognize that 32% of the members of today’s active duty military do not identify themselves as white; they also underestimated the intelligence of service members who understand that the values for which they fight are more important than a poem written by a Maryland lawyer and put to the music of a popular English song.
The nature of the gesture itself also was important. Kaepernick initially chose to sit during the anthem but after speaking with Nate Boyer, a former member of the Seattle Seahawks and also a former Green Beret, he decided to kneel. I happened to be listening to Fox NFL Sunday last Sunday, which gives you an idea of how I spend most Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter. One of my favorite football scholars, Terry Bradshaw, supported Kaepernick’s right to protest and thought that kneeling was an appropriate way to do so, observing “heck, during the Vietnam War they used to burn the flag.” I’ve always believed that Terry is smarter than he sounds, so I think that was Terry’s way of saying that kneeling during the national anthem is not so offensive that the people for whom the message is intended would be too angry to hear it.
Finally, the relatively low regard given by the NFL and the television networks to the ritual of playing the national anthem before kickoff may have mellowed the response to Kaepernick’s protest. The vast majority of the fans who see a game watch it on television and the networks, with the consent of the NFL, routinely broadcast commercials rather than show the playing of the national anthem. The high priest of the NFL, Commissioner Roger Goodell, doesn’t believe that it is important that most of us listen to, let alone honor, the national anthem prior to a game.
This is not 1955 and race relations have come a long way, and the analogy to Rosa Parks goes only so far. She was arrested and lost her job for what she did, and received death threats for years. Kaepernick risks a lot less. Also, any honest conversation about race today is going to sound a lot different today than it did then.
Today, there is more to discuss than discrimination by whites against blacks. Yes, that type of discrimination still exists but we also need a frank discussion about black racism, the abuse of affirmative action and whether the institution of slavery plays any role in the current plight of the 24% of black Americans who live in poverty other than operate as some sort of collective excuse. If Kaepernick’s protest helps get the conversation started then it has done some good.
September 14, 2016