Protesting for Love of One’s Country

Beth Chandler, Interim President and CEO

Patriotism: (n) love for or devotion to one’s country
as defined by Merriam-Webster

This July 4th, I celebrated my love for the United States. I am a patriotic person – it is hard not to be in Boston. The YW Boston office is a fifteen minute walk from the Freedom Trail, and there is history in every direction. I care deeply about my city, my state, and my country, which is why I strive to make our culture more tolerant, safe, and empowering for people of color.

One way I demonstrate my love for my country is through protest. Last year, YW Boston participated in the Women’s March and the Fight Supremacy! March. I consider it constructive criticism – I want the United States to rise and be the best it can be.

I’ve been a longtime football fan. For years, I have been committed to the New England Patriots, and even when they weren’t playing, I enjoyed rooting for other teams. However, in the past year, I’ve begun to question my dedication. I am unsure whether I can support a League that disrespects the voices of its players, especially the movements primarily led by a number of black players.

The League’s attempts this past season to silence its players has been disheartening. In 2016, in the wake of a number of high profile police shootings, Colin Kaepernick, then of the San Francisco 49ers, began sitting during the pre-kickoff national anthem. As he explained his choice to sit, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…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.” In doing so, he joined the long history of black athletes protesting for justice. Over time, a number of players from other teams (and sports) joined in, and began to kneel. Across the country, football’s mostly white, male, and conservative fans were confronted by this visible protest for racial justice.

For over a year, more people saw the protest and more people joined in, and the #TakeAKnee movement took off. This was disrupted when President Trump threw gas on the issue, calling the protesters “very disrespectful to our flag and to our country” and called on NFL owners to stop the protests. Not only did this provoke #TakeAKnee critics, it distracted viewers from the point. The focus was no longer white supremacy and racialized police violence; it was about whether viewers supported Trump’s comments. It also meant that many NFL team owners jumped to make sure they remained in Trump’s good graces.

In May, the NFL instituted a policy for the upcoming season, which “requires players and League personnel on the sideline to stand but gives them the option to remain in the locker room if they don’t want to stand.” The decision attempts to assuage both players and critics – you can protest, just not in plain view. Perhaps NFL viewership isn’t going down because one side of angry liberals or conservatives. It is because of the NFL’s back and forth attempts to appease all its viewers. Rather than taking a stance, they are exhausting all parties involved.

Over the past few years, I have begun to watch football less and less. Mostly I prefer to be outside with my family on Sunday afternoons. However, when I do sit down to enjoy a Patriots game, I cannot help but feel hypocritical. A number of my friends have stopped watching games altogether out of protest, and I’m proud of their dedication. They support Kaepernick, who many people believe has been shut out of the game, and they resist a League that seems more concerned with profit than the freedom of their employees. I love the game enough to keep watching, but while doing so, I can’t help but think that my viewership contributes to a League that devalues the voices of people of color.

The patriotism that permeates American football culture is a warped patriotism. It is not for the love of one’s country – if this were the case, protesting would be celebrated. Instead, it is wrapped up in the concept of “America First,” militarism, and white supremacy. Football, more than any other sport, is seen as uniquely American, and therefore an attack on the NFL is seen as an attack on the country.

The backlash to Kaepernick and other players reveals that the face of a protest dictates how it is received. The Women’s March and the March for Our Lives have been two wildly successful recent protests. I applaud their multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-generational approach, but I also recognize that in many ways, this aspect has made them palatable to American viewers. The inherent visible blackness of the #TakeAKnee movement demonstrates that mostly white football audiences do not feel comfortable with black voices at the center of a movement.

According to “The Onion Theory of Nonviolent Protest” by Bruce Harfort, “an essential rule of effective nonviolent direct action has to be: Don’t frighten the observers!… because that which is strange and unfamiliar is for many folk frightening.” Our white supremacist culture has engrained a fear of black men into America’s psyche. Despite the nonviolent, non-confrontational nature of kneeling during the anthem, many viewers register Kaepernick’s skin color and afro as frightening. This reaction reaffirms players’ reasoning to protest – to bring awareness to the black men killed every day when white people view them as a threat. It also clearly delineates who is allowed to have a voice and protest in America.

The protest is not only seen as scary or unwanted, but is called un-American by critics. Many people believe this is because the kneeling occurs during the National Anthem, which they see as the ultimate symbol of America. The label “Un-American” is reinforced by President Trump’s attempt to align protest with treason. If the protesters’ allegiances are not aligned with America, including Black Americans, where do they lie? This question calls back to slavery, when the Dred Scott decision ruled that slaves were not citizens and had no right to sue. African-Americans who speak up have been, and still are, labeled un-American. With this label, white Americans have more reason to dismiss their calls for a more just society.

I support the NFL Players Association’s decision to file a grievance about the new policy. As the Association states, “NFL players have shown their patriotism through their social activism, their community service, in support of our military and law enforcement and yes, through their protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about.” It is clear that, despite the players being the reason we turn on the game, they are rarely listened to by owners and the executives who run the League.

Last fall, Texans owner Bob McNair, referring to player protesters, cautioned the League against having “inmates running the prison.” This deeply white supremacist comment demonstrates a dark current that runs through the League. NFL owners depend on the bodies of players – so much so that they will ignore traumatic brain injury reports – but care little about them when they are not playing. By silencing their voices, the League also threatens players’ bodily autonomy. They disallow black players from speaking up about what it means to live with a black body in America, while also depending on these same players for their paychecks.

While the Patriots have not publicly commented on the NFL’s attempt to end the protests, Quarterback Tom Brady recently commented, “I respect why people are doing what they’re doing, and they’re doing it for different reasons, and that’s OK.” As he told Oprah Winfrey, “I think there were a lot of really good, healthy conversations coming out of it in our locker room.” Good, healthy conversations are a major reason people protest. Protesters do not protest because they want the final say; they protest because they want people to ask “Why?” and start a conversation. As the Interim CEO of an organization that encourages connection across difference, I am disheartened that the NFL is not doing more to promote these conversations.

Overall, the Patriots’ leadership has remained mostly silent on the NFL’s new protesting policy. In the past, owner Robert Kraft has criticized President Trump’s comments on the NFL, calling them divisive and not in the best interest of America. Regardless, Kraft voted to hide and silence protesters alongside the other team owners.

Those who silence the protesters are turning their backs on making this country great for all people. They are putting their hands over their ears and blocking out the #TakeAKnee message.

My hope is that this continued struggle to allow NFL players to openly protest will inspire Americans to rethink patriotism. I want to watch games with my son and daughter, and to share my love for the game with them. I want to watch players #TakeAKnee, and to teach my children that these players’ deep love for their country and its people give them the courage to protest and the hope for justice.

I call on the NFL, and the Patriots specifically, to support their players. The New York Jets’ chairman Christopher Johnson announced in May that the team will pay all fines if his players kneel during the anthem, without punishment. The Patriots symbolize the freedom this country was founded on, and I believe Robert Kraft should seriously consider making the same commitment.

As a Patriot, I am a football fan and an admirer of the United States of America. As a protester, I see room for my country to grow toward racial equity. When football begins again this fall, I want to hold both of these identities and enjoy the game. I hope the NFL, too, evolves to respect the voices of its black players and listen to the growing #TakeAKnee movement.