It's the brink of fall in the United States: School is back in session, leaves will soon be changing colors and the pumpkin spice latte is just around the corner. And most important, for millions Americans, it's football season. The seven-month post-Super Bowl drought is over, the fields are chalked and the man caves are decked out.
For the National Football League (NFL) — the world's richest sports league — the 2017 season was supposed to be restorative. Last year, the organization saw a precipitous 8 percent drop in television viewership, a relatively steep decline that was blamed on several factors. Some have argued that fans have been increasingly frustrated by the league's poor handling of off-field issues, especially those involving domestic violence incidents. Others noted that viewers were tuning out in response to the damning evidence of the relationship between football and traumatic brain injuries that players suffer.
But according to several polls, the politicization of the game has soured many fans, as the action on the field took a backseat to debates over pregame national anthem protests. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked a heated national conversation last season when he refused to stand during "The Star-Spangled Banner." Kaepernick explained that his protest was in response to racial unrest and police brutality in the country. "I am not going to stand up and show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said. "To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
For a moment, cable news networks and the exhausting world of sports talk radio had a field day: Kaepernick was a pariah, a patriot or a punk, depending on who was talking. As with most things in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, the story lost steam after the first few weeks of the season, despite the fact that Kaepernick and other players continued to protest the anthem. In retrospect, the most interesting thing about Kaepernick's protest, perhaps, is that it came before the presidential election and the heightened national conversations on race and identity that the presidency of Donald Trump has ushered in. Perhaps less surprising was then-candidate Trump's response: "…maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try. It won't happen."
At the dawn of a new season, with Kaepernick out of the league and other controversies consuming the national media, the NFL might have hoped it had left the anthem issue behind. But then came violence surrounding protests and counterprotests over Confederate symbols. The charged atmosphere lingering in the wake of the deadly vehicular assault on demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, inspired several NFL players to resume the anthem protests before preseason games.
The day after the events in Charlottesville, the Seattle Seahawks' Michael Bennet knelt and the Oakland Raiders' Marshawn Lynch remained seated as the anthem played before their preseason games. Then, a week later, over a dozen members of the Cleveland Browns knelt in prayer as the anthem played before a preseason contest with the New York Giants. Predictably, these actions have left the airwaves buzzing again, with a seemingly equal number of commentators praising and condemning the protests. This all amounts to a headache for a league that prefers its patriotism loud, proud and uncomplicated, not mired in nuanced debates over the intersection of free speech and national identity. While the league prepares to navigate the PR gauntlet, the ongoing tension provides an opportunity to reflect on the history of protest by American athletes and the curious institution of playing the national anthem before sporting events.
Stepping Up and Speaking Out
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most iconic instances of athlete activism came during the civil rights era. During the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali declared himself a conscientious objector and refused his induction into the armed forces in 1967, famously stating that "My enemy is the white people, not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese." Ali was arrested, convicted of a felony and, at what would have been the peak of his career, stripped of his title and boxing license. It would take three years and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to reinstate the contentious champ. A year after Ali took his stand, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took gold and bronze in the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. As they stood on the podium to receive their medals, they thrust gloved fists into the air in a Black Power salute. At the time, commentators in the United States blasted the athletes for imbuing sport with politics and for disrespecting the anthem. Today, the image of Smith and Carlos is considered one of the most iconic symbols of 20th-century America.
In the decades that followed, American sports became an even bigger business, many American athletes became wealthy celebrities and a widespread apolitical appeal became the name of the game. Franchises and athletes had too much at stake and too much to lose by taking sides. In the neoliberal 1980s, while African-American teens were being killed over shoes bearing his name, Michael Jordan emerged as the poster child for this new attitude. When asked why he didn't use his celebrity as a platform for activism, Jordan reportedly quipped that "Republicans buy sneakers, too."
The few athletes who have taken stances in the post-civil rights era have become cautionary tales for those thinking about giving voice to their beliefs. NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf made headlines in 1996 by refusing to stand for the national anthem, telling The New York Times that the flag symbolized oppression and tyranny. The league intervened, suspending Abdul-Rauf and forcing his compliance for the remainder of the season, but it would be his last in the NBA. His political stance effectively rendered him persona non grata in the league. More recently, NFL punter Chris Kluwe met a similar fate for his outspoken views on same sex marriage and gay rights. Kluwe wasn't explicitly sanctioned for his statements, but he became an untouchable in the league, and his career met a premature end.
At the time, many observers noted that Kluwe was statistically among the best in the league at his specialist position and that his ouster couldn't be explained in terms of his performance. Kaepernick, for his trouble, appears to have also received the Kluwe treatment. Based on his playing abilities, the 29-year-old quarterback should be wearing an NFL jersey — perhaps not as a starter, but certainly as a veteran backup. But, on the eve of the season's kickoff, Kaepernick remains an unsigned free agent and appears unlikely to find a spot on any roster. For the league's harshest critics, his unofficial blacklist status is particularly galling as players convicted of domestic abuse and other unsavory behavior continue to earn millions.
Oh, Say, Why Does the Anthem Play?
While the majority of the conversation surrounding the current wave of protests centers on patriotic symbolism and the limits of political expression, there has also been a quieter re-examination of the place of the national anthem before sporting events. While common in international competition, the United States is among the minority in its inclusion of the national anthem before sporting events at home, where the song is a fixture before professional and amateur contests alike. Historian Mark Ferris notes that the song was played before sporting events as far back as 1862 and became increasingly standard fare during both world wars as proud nationalism took center stage and booming stadium sound systems became the norm. A notable performance came during the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, when an impassioned crowd sing-along became front-page news. Interestingly, "The Star-Spangled Banner" wasn't officially sanctioned as the national anthem until 1931, so the sports world may be rightfully credited with cementing the song in the national consciousness.
To some critics, the anthem, along with military honor guards and fighter jet flyovers, promotes and normalizes a jingoistic brand of blind nationalism. They also allege hypocrisy and crass profiteering on the part of the NFL and other domestic leagues: With the exception of major playoff and championship games, the anthem is rarely televised, as pregame ceremonies are often pre-empted on broadcasts by advertising. Defenders of this type of symbolism argue that we should celebrate the institutions that grant us the freedom to enjoy the spectacle of competitive sports and that sport and politics simply do not mix. Ironically, the NFL is somewhat to blame for its current headache: Until 2009, players remained in the locker room until after the anthem was played.
While many fans want to move past these conversations and just enjoy the games, I get the sense that we might be entering a period of outspoken athlete activism that harkens back to the civil rights era. For a robust democracy that is obsessed with ballgames, this strikes me as a good thing. And to the folks who think ballplayers should simply keep quiet and play the game, I defer to Karl-Anthony Towns, the young superstar of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves who recently penned a compelling piece for The Players' Tribune, arguing, "And to anyone who says, 'Stick to sports' … let's be real: Our President used to host a reality TV show. You're telling me I can't voice a political opinion?"