NFL national anthem policy: institutionalized racism strikes back?
I have smart, strongly progressive friends who don’t see the national anthem issue the way I do. Here’s an exchange between one of my closest friends and me on the subject, with some discussion about pragmatism and idealism…
Yesterday, in the wake of the newly announced NFL policy on the national anthem, I posted this to Facebook:
Okay, I need someone to convince me not to boycott the NFL at least until they decide that domestic abuse is worse than speaking out against injustice.
I got a number of replies. None of them talked me off the ledge. One supported the idea that you have to stand period and another, from my good friend Marti, delved into the complicated business issues facing a league that doesn’t want to piss off its customers.
To the former I replied that
I’m fine with you acting in the way you think is appropriate. But a LOT of us disagree. I don’t have blind loyalty to anything, especially a song that’s overtly and intentionally pro-slavery.
These protests aren’t about the anthem. They’re about a brand of racist behavior by law enforcement that society has ignored for decades. Finally it’s getting attention. I call that a victory for everyone except those propping up the racist institutions of the country.
Here’s Marti’s comment in its entirety:
I have no problem at all with civil disobedience, but historically those who take it on must endure the fallout. Most of these guys grew up in disadvantaged circumstances, so giving up everything is a high price to pay. Unless you are willing to do the same, there is no reason to judge them. The NFL is a business. Owners are being forced by the majority of their fans to stop actions that are causing more divisive racial responses than support. Like it or not, this action is not producing the results players intended. It is seen as anti-American. The players are wealthy men and can approach this in a more accepted way to express their opinions and get mass support. We can armchair judge the decision as liberals, but instead I would like to see players use their influence and money to change the playing field, so to speak. The irony is that most of them are Republicans….still! Bigger fish to fry in better environs than this. I am a realist and still watching football.
One other point……again, as a business, they get to set the rules for their employees. Legally it is not a first amendment right to behave outside those rules if it impacts the business. It would be no different than if you decided to picket outside your job because you wanted to make a point. Colin gave up everything. If all players worked through their unions to support him this might have looked different. See it as a first step. No one will notice you stopped watching. Again…better ways to deal with racial injustice than at a professional football game.
Marti and I are on the same side of the aisle politically. It’s probably fair to say we agree on 99.9% of everything, but sometimes have differing ideas about how best to accomplish our shared goals.
Here we diverge a bit. In a world where we’re encouraged to believe there are only two views on anything, with FOX screaming from one side and some sort of shrill, stylized straw-Rachel Maddow caricature screaming from the other, I thought it might be worthy to expose this debate in the interests of, well, nuance.
I understand that the owners don’t want to upset paying customers and I know many fans see the protest as disrespectful. Problem is, you and I both understand how PR works. These protests are not and never were, for a second, about the military, the flag, any of that. THAT’S the spin the establishment, led by Trump, put on them in an attempt to discredit Kaepernick et al. Sadly, it worked.
I can tell you something the news hasn’t figured out yet, and probably won’t. The league is losing fans over here, too, and I may well be one of them. It’s hard to support an organization that colludes against players like Kaep and Reid, men who are willing to take a stand – or in this case kneel – for racial fairness.
I feel you here….believe me. I just see it becoming about the NFL and not the true subject matter….people in power encouraging racial profiling and divisiveness. Trump wrapped himself in the flag and quickly made the players look anti-American. We need to spend our time focused on things we can really influence….the discussion. The NFL is merely bending to public opinion. Using this business as the vehicle we found to become a useful tool to stop the real discussion….just my observation of attacking businesses instead of issues.
On that last point I couldn’t agree more. “Using this business as the vehicle we found to become a useful tool to stop the real discussion…” That’s the nut of things. Yes, they use business to deflect discussion (or worse, actual change), but this isn’t reactive or opportunistic – it’s strategic. Late capitalism, as my Marxist friends might put it, says that money is the only logic. Everything reduces to the P&L sheet. Justice is evaluated on its business impact. On the ledger of society, right is black and wrong is red.
Neither of us like this, but we both get the reality of it.
I also disagree with a point Marti makes in that first post: “Again…better ways to deal with racial injustice than at a professional football game.”
This is something a lot of people believe, including a number of my closest (progressive) friends.
My problem with it is this: History says it doesn’t work that way. As I wrote a couple years ago:
We turned the hoses and attack dogs on MLK’s peaceful protests. We really didn’t like Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary.” The very existence of the Black Panthers made us apoplectic.
We disapproved of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black power salute. Muhammad Ali was willing to give up his career and go to prison because he refused to kill people who had never done anything wrong to him and whites vilified him. We hate Black Lives Matter because somehow saying I shouldn’t be killed means you should be killed. Rosa Parks? Get your ass to the back of the bus, old lady. Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins? Go eat with you own kind.
In other words, standing protests are bad, sitting protests are bad, kneeling protests (Kaepernick’s latest tactic, now joined by Megan Rapinoe) are bad, aggressive protests are bad, peaceful protests are bad, marching is bad, standing still is bad, putting your hands in the air is bad, leaving your hands by your side is bad, eating is bad. (Although I will crawl out on a limb and guess that many Americans would be okay with fasting protests.)
Things are how they are because those in power want them that way. Protests, in order to be effective, must violate business as usual. The minority must hurt the majority in a tangible way. Only then can change happen.
And in this case, change is crucial because, in case you missed it, blacks are being harassed and killed with impunity by police officers who have no fear of retribution.
In an odd role reversal, I believe my more … I hesitate to use the word “pragmatic,” but that’s how the divide on the left is usually framed … friends are actually more idealistic than my fellow rabble rousers and me. What I mean is, when they say there are more appropriate ways of protesting, what they’re doing is expressing a faith in the system to effect justice.
Meanwhile, Mr. Idealist out here on the fringe is rejecting that in favor of a view that is, at the core, aggressively pragmatic, because I do not believe the system will solve these problems. (So whether you’re idealistic or pragmatic hinges, I suppose, on your assumptions about the efficacy of the system.)
I mean, it’s been how long since America freed the slaves? Hell, it’s been over 50 years since we passed the Civil Rights Act, right?
One final note about that national anthem that it’s so important we all honor and respect (and this is about those who support Trump and the owners, not Marti and my other progressive friends). You realize Francis Scott Key’s family owned slaves, right? And that there’s more than one verse? Ever look at the third?
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Food for thought…
Many thanks to Marti Smith for agreeing to be quoted in this article.