NFL national anthem policy: institutionalized racism strikes back?

Lions during national anthem

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 replied:

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.

Her reply:

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:

Ra[inoe kneels during national anthemWe 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 saluteMuhammad 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.


  • I sorta agree and disagree. The fact that these protests got attention shows they are effective, qua protesting. However, I think it would be even >>more<< effective if they were tied, let's say weekly, to how well things have changed in the previous week. Make "will they or won't they" be the news item/issue as well. "Only (sic) 5 POC were killed this week – that's a "good week"! Protest off." Or some such. Maybe if there's a conviction or arrest of one of the cops…

    Look at how the MSD young people kept the issue in the public eye for as long as they did. The main problem with the kneeling is that the issue becomes the kneeling, not the target of the protest.

    • Yeah – this might be a more effective tactic re: their losing PR battle.

    • The USA is supposed to be about equality, and that’s the only way it can work. Political and economic equality are the same thing; money and power are interchangeable commodities here, and anytime anyone has more power and money to spend on politics (the art of deciding who gets what) than other people, both equality and democracy are dead.

      The right wing whines like hybrid 2-year-old teens, that this country is supposed to be about freedom. But that’s only true with democracy and equality; get rid of them and you get rid of freedom. All that’s left is license by the rich to exploit and deceive everyone else. One lie they use is to make their followers feel oppressed by fact, reality and science. The religious and corporate right use faith both to replace those 3 and as the tool to accomplish it, in an exponentially increasing and more powerful manner just like the accumulation of money and power. They’ve almost come to their climax.

      The NFL is no more about democracy, equality or freedom than warlord religion, warlord corporatism or the military are. (Except enforced pseudo sorta equality of teams, to keep interest in the spectacle, since we don’t have many on-field fatalities since the Romans. Just wait…) The NFL is a patriarchal hierarchy, a dictatorship run by a junta of already rich white men. While the rules they operate under currently include limited and superficial aspects of equality (and no aspects of democracy) because they can’t get rid of them right now, the current system has given them enough money/power to finish doing that soon.

      For reasons passing understanding—when we have plenty of wise, eloquent artists, writers, scientists and teachers, beautiful craftspeople and diligent laborers to look up to—millions look up to those they look down on on our playing fields who aren’t even children. Those playing who are kneeling, raising fists, or casually chatting to express to those millions their unhappiness with the power structure, can’t be tolerated by the junta or those the junta stand in for in the larger society.

      The players are mostly not wealthy men. A tiny minority of them are; I suspect about the same proportion as in the rest of society. The rest have a few years of adulation or ignoring, exploitation and abuse for which they’re well paid and often come out of disabled and in pain, sometimes are or become addicted to alcohol or pain medication by the time they’re 35. Or 22.

      Their best earning years are when they’re too young to understand much about planning or making good use of the years, just the opposite of most people who make comparable amounts of money at any time. They’ve been fooled into concentrating on one skill, and often have little other education or ability to handle whatever they’ve saved, or to make more in any useful or fulfilling profession.

      Most get a bit of a pension they can’t collect for another 30 years; among their disabilities are pride and shame and confusion about everything they’ve been taught. (A few, of course, are very different from all that.) Pardon them if they take actions that someone thinks are ”divisive”. Lincoln’s election was divisive; the US Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation were divisive. The civil rights movement was and is divisive; the women’s movement and the movement to stop destroying the natural basis of all our existence continue to be divisive. Every advance of society upsets and threatens the oligarchy, and the oligarchy, feeling threatened, always tries to conquer by dividing.

      Laws have been passed or attempted to allow drivers to run over protestors, to make interfering with pipelines more serious felonies than they already are, to outlaw almost all assemblies so the rich and powerful can choose which ones are allowed and which aren’t. It’s illegal now in many places to tell or especially to show the truth about horrific practices of animal abuse and contamination…

      Time to stop letting them do that. The ”better ways to deal with racial injustice than at a professional football game” are an appeal to let them protest where they can be ignored. It’s a plan to silence them.

      In the end, the rage we see in the new laws and demonstrated daily in every realm is caused by whatever effectively calls attention to the horrors of society and the faults of the deciders, whatever interferes with the oligarch’s ability go on, oblivious, with their own aggrandizement and indulgence.

      Time to stop letting them do that. Racial, class, anti-intellectual, misogynistic, and ultimately, anti-environmental obliviousness is what’s being protected by the refusal of the right to allow protest in any effective way or place. Time to stop letting them do that.

  • Protesting during the national anthem at a professional sporting event is absolutely an appropriate and effective time and place to protest. Effective primarily because it’s pissing off a lot of white people, fucking with their leisure, their concussive national pastime, and costing rich white men money.

    Frankly, I think it’s glorious because one of the things I hate most about our country is we are so corrupt that doing the right thing has to be good for the corporate PR campaign or P&L statement or the morally-bereft assholes who own or run those corporations wouldn’t do a goddamn thing.

    And to those who claim or think that NFL players taking a knee in protest during the national anthem is un-American, you couldn’t be more absurdly wrong. It’s perfectly, ideally American, and a stirring exhibition of patriotism. It’s an act that decries prejudice, injustice, and complacency, that calls for we as a nation and a people to rise to and remain at a higher standard, to fulfill America’s promise as a nation of equality, opportunity, and peace. These NFL players want the U.S. to grow and get better.

    If fact, if anyone in all of this is acting un-American and disgracefully un-patriotic it’s everyone from Trump and the NFL leadership on down to the whining, bitching fans watching football games on TV at home who condemn the protest actions these players have taken and mistakenly claimed the players are the bad Americans.

    The players are better Americans and greater patriots than any of you idiots reading this who don’t think Kaepernick and others have the First Amendment right and the social responsibility and freedom to protest a really rotten, unjust aspect of our society.

  • Dr. Denny Wilkins

    Of course the NFL ownership overlooked another alternative. The league could have stopped playing the national anthem, right? And done away with the fighter jet flybys? There — problem solved. The Kaepernick-chosen venue for protest is done away with. Everyone’s happy, right?

    I can hear Trump screaming already …

    • Yeah, except they’re being paid by the military for the mandatory displays of patriotism.

      (Notice how I said that without using the words “paid for by your tax dollars”?)

      • Yes, the playing of the anthem at games didn’t start until the two thousands. It’s not some sacred old tradition.

  • regarding this comment: “I have no problem at all with civil disobedience, but historically those who take it on must endure the fallout.”

    I again point out, as I did in the Facebook discussion, that football players choosing not to stand during the anthem is not civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is defined as follows: “the refusal to comply with certain laws or to pay taxes and fines, as a peaceful form of political protest.” There is no law compelling people to stand during the anthem; doing so is merely tradition. So, now, with players not standing for the anthem, we are not talking about civil disobedience for which people have historically paid a price. We are now punishing people for breaking a CUSTOM, one that has only been going on at football games for less than 20 years. Custom is defined as follows: “a traditional and widely accepted way of behaving.”

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