As the NFL preseason started Thursday night, players for the Eagles, Dolphins, Jaguars and Seahawks knelt, raised a fist or waited off-field during the national anthem. On Friday morning, President Donald Trump once again attacked them on Twitter.
Trump lashed out with a new criticism, saying that players, “wanted to show their ‘outrage’ at something that most of them are unable to define.”
To state that players are unable to explain the reasons behind their own protests is easily disproved. Many have articulated their rationales clearly and passionately since 2016, when quarterback Colin Kaepernick first kept his seat during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Regardless of whether you condemn NFL players bringing politics into the sport or agree with their stance on race relations in the United States, it is misleading to say that they have not properly expressed their reasons for protesting.
All the way back in 2016, Kaepernick said that his protest was directed against racism and police brutality, aligning himself with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He said in an interview with NFL.com. “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.”
As Kaepernick’s protest spread, other players also made their reasons for protesting explicit. In September 2016, ESPN reporter Cameron Wolfe quoted Seahawks wide receiver Brandon Marshall. “I’m not against the military. I’m not against the police or America. I’m against social injustice.”
Jelani Jenkins, a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, penned a piece in TIME Magazine that articulated his own rational for kneeling.
“What I want is simple: equal rights and equal opportunities for every single person living in this country,” he wrote. “By kneeling, I intended to stimulate meaningful dialogue and to raise awareness so that we will be able to find solutions to the problems that exist in this country.”
Following clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said in an interview with NFL.com that he wanted “to use [his] platform to be able to continually speak on injustice.” He continued, “I just want to see people have the equality that they deserve.”
In September 2017, Trump, agitated by the kneeling players, or perhaps seeing an opportunity to win on a divisive issue with his base, condemned the NFL protests in harsh terms in a speech to supporters in Alabama.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” said the president at a rally for Alabama Senator Luther Strange.
Following those comments, NFL players began protesting in greater numbers. Many cited the President’s comments as their reason for taking a knee during the national anthem, again clearly stating their rationalization.
“Me and my teammates, we felt like President Trump’s speech was an assault on our most cherished right, freedom of speech,” Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller told U.S. News & World Report. “Collectively, we felt like we had to do something for this game, if not any other game, if not in the past, in the future. At this moment in time, we felt like, as a team, we had to do something. We couldn’t just let things go.”
“It upset a lot of guys,” Indianapolis Colts free safety Darius Butler told the Indianapolis Star. “It kind of radicalizes you, in a sense: ‘OK this line is being drawn in the sand. I need to do something to show exactly what side I’m on.’”
One of the most extensive explanations was provided by San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, who in September 2017 penned an op-ed in the New York Times. He explained that he had kneeled during the national anthem with Colin Kaepernick back in 2016 in order to protest police killings of black people, particularly that of Alton Sterling in his hometown Baton Rouge, La.
“We seek equality for all Americans, no matter their race or gender,” Reid wrote. “I refuse to be one of those people who watches injustices yet does nothing. I want to be a man my children and children’s children can be proud of, someone who faced adversity and tried to make a positive impact on the world.”
He wrote that he did not intend his protest to disrespect the flag or military personnel. “It should go without saying that I love my country and I’m proud to be an American. But, to quote James Baldwin, ‘exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.'”