NFL Controversy Is Part of America’s History of Peaceful Protest

Warren K. LefflerAfrican Americans participate in the historic March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

For many Americans, one of the most important traditions to uphold is getting together to watch Sunday Night Football. Another, perhaps more vital, part of American culture is the right to peaceful protest.

Recently, the NFL has been headlining newspapers for a reason other than game scores. Since Sept. 24, football players from various teams all over the country changed things up during the national anthem — many kneeling, locking arms, sitting down or even staying in their locker rooms.

This form of peaceful protest in the NFL most notably began in 2016 with Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, when he sat during the national anthem to protest the oppression of people of color in the United States, particularly police brutality against African Americans. Soon, Kaepernick was joined by teammate Eric Reid, but rather than sitting, the two decided to kneel. In an op-ed published by the New York Times, Reid wrote that they “chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture;” he thought of their posture as “a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

They quickly gained negative attention nationally. They were criticized for being unpatriotic and for disrespecting the military — but their protests had nothing to do with that. They knelt to protest the lives lost to race-motivated police brutality, not to be disrespectful of the military, the flag or the country it represents.

On Sept. 22, President Donald Trump spoke at a rally and criticized NFL players who protested during the national anthem, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b— off the field right now.’” Then, after seeing the players respond to his remarks with more protests, Trump tweeted responses further, saying, “Kneeling is not acceptable” and “Fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country.”

The players had every right to kneel, lock arms or stay in their locker rooms during the anthem as part of their First Amendment rights,  which were created so that people wouldn’t have to fear speaking out for something that they believe in. Freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble are the foundation the United States is built on. And, while the First Amendment protects all forms of speech, it doesn’t protect hate crimes of any kind — precisely what these players are protesting.

“Non-violent protest is as American as it gets,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs told ESPN — and he’s right. Peaceful protest has been the cornerstone to civil rights progress in the United States. In the early 1900s, suffragettes marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., marking the first major efforts of the women’s suffrage movement; seven years later, the 19th Amendment was passed, granting women the right to vote. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, beginning the Montgomery Bus Boycott; about a year later, segregation on buses was declared unconstitutional.

The United States and many of its laws were built on the peaceful protests of Americans who stood up for what was important to them. NFL players are similarly acting upon something they believe and something they view is worth creating dialogue about.

Kneeling during the anthem isn’t about disrespecting the American flag; the choice to kneel is about coming together and showing solidarity with those who live under the American flag. This form of protest should be praised rather than criticized — no one was hurt or killed while trying to express these beliefs, and instead this has sparked an important dialogue on the issues of institutionalized racism and the right to demonstrate. That is the reason the right to peacefully assemble was created, and members of the NFL should be praised for their participation.

NFL players who kneel are asserting their rights as American citizens so that others will have their rights, too. Citizens must remember how America has grown through the centuries, how its freedom of speech has guided its civil rights movements and how this became the defining feature of American politics. In times of injustice, peaceful protests remind Americans of the values the United States is built on. Now, football fields aren’t just home to one of America’s favorite sports, but are also a platform for political change and social justice.

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