By Dominic Ansley
In America today, it’s as if everything has become a political statement. Our country is seemingly more divided than it has been in decades and we must choose a side, whether we like it or not. When political arguments seem to be apart of everyday lifestyle, Americans are constantly looking for an escape. For most of us, we find that escape in sports — or we used to.
During the NFL preseason of 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, started a movement when he remained seated on the bench during the national anthem before each game. When this finally got media attention, Kaepernick was asked why he didn’t stand.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said. “There are bodies in the street, and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Read that statement. Now read it again. His message seems pretty cut-and-dry. Kaepernick wanted to shine a light on the issue of police brutality against unarmed black citizens and the racism that still exists in this country. But even though he was as clear as he could possibly be, the narrative has changed from being anti-racism, to being anti-America and anti-military.
The Star-Spangled Banner means many things to many people in this country. When the national anthem is played at a sporting event: fans rise, remove their caps and place it over their heart. Some see this as a time to reflect on what a great country we live in, others see this as a time to thank our military men and women that voluntarily lay their lives out on the line for us to live in the freest country in the world. When these same people glance down at the field and see a man sitting, or down on one knee during the anthem, they see a person that is ungrateful for the freedoms that we as Americans have, and ungrateful to the fine servicemen and servicewomen that fight for those freedoms. These people see this act of defiance and become angered; when people become angry, they need an outlet, and what better place is there than social media platforms where one can be surrounded by like-minded people who feel that same anger?
After Kaepernick’s protest, social media blew up with posts that were both supportive and unsupportive. Those that were angry began accusing Kaepernick of disrespecting our military. When I look through these posts denouncing Colin Kaepernick claiming “anti-military” or “ungrateful,” I notice that — for the most part — the very people saying these things are everyday civilians who have never served in the military. They may have family members that served — and even died — in the military, but they themselves have never picked up that camouflage helmet or tied those boots and gone to war.
So what do actual military members think of Kaepernick’s protest, along with the ones that followed? If you were to go on Twitter and search the hashtag “#VetsForKap,” you would see thousands of tweets supporting these peaceful protests, whether they agree with it or not.
My older brother, Sean Ansley, a former United States Marine and current member of the Air Force Reserve, is one of those veterans that supports these athletes rights to expressing free speech, even though he may not like the fact that politics and sports have now become intertwined.
“What they are doing during the national anthem does not offend me in the least.” Ansley said. “As a veteran, I am sworn to protect the rights of the people of this country and that includes the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. Now what does bother me is that I have to see what, in my opinion, has become a political statement associated with sports. I don’t think the two have any business being on the same stage.”
That’s understandable, sports are supposed to be an escape from the hot topic of politics, and people on both sides of the argument are frustrated that it has gotten to this point.
However, even with the support of a large portion of U.S. service members, Colin Kaepernick lost his job, and is now considered a distraction and P.R. nightmare by most NFL teams, despite his skill as a quarterback. Support for Kaepernick’s right to free speech is a very common stance among current and former service members, and for an average civilian to take the stance that these protests are being ungrateful toward our military is presumptive and problematic. One of the beautiful things about this country is that every single one of us, as citizens, have that right to free speech. If we feel that there is a problem in this country, we can speak out without censorship or punishment from the government as long as there are no threatening messages made.
Now more than ever, that point needs to be made as clear as possible. Just days ago, the President of the United States made many statements condemning the peaceful protests during the national anthem at professional sporting events. Not only did he reprimand these acts as disrespectful to the military and the flag, but he then went on to say that any player that protests the anthem should be fired, and that they should “get that son of a bi–h off the field.” This came after the white supremacist and neo-Nazi riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, about which the same President said — days later — some of those involved in the brutality and hate speech were “very fine people.”
After the President’s remarks, and almost two years after Colin Kaepernick took a knee, the same players who condemned — or just ignored — Kaepernick are now kneeling on the sidelines in a false display of solidarity, and the NFL is now in a public relations crisis. On one side, people are boycotting the league because players are protesting during the national anthem. On the other side, people are boycotting the league because the man who started the movement — Colin Kaepernick — has been blackballed by every team owner in the National Football League for fighting for an issue he deeply believes needs to be addressed.
Whether you want to believe it or not, these wealthy, successful black athletes and media members that speak out or protest are still affected by racism. LeBron James had a racial slur spray-painted across his house in June. Just days ago, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin, was called that same racial slur in a Facebook post from a white fire chief in Pennsylvania. Back in May, Baltimore Orioles centerfielder, Adam Jones, heard the same slur yelled at him multiple times while playing against the Boston Red Sox. This is all happening in 2017, almost 50 years after the end of the Civil Rights Movement.
This isn’t about disrespecting the military, and this isn’t about disrespecting the flag. It never has been, and it never will be. Those out there who — after almost two years — still see these acts as such, are being willfully blind to the real issue being brought up by the original protests: the fact that there is still an obvious inequity between the experience of a white citizen, and the experience of a person of color in this country. This topic makes people uncomfortable, so they avoid addressing it by finding scapegoats like the anti-military or “ungrateful” excuses.
People don’t want to talk about race. They tell athletes and reporters to just stick to sports. However, when the President of the United States of America — the leader of the free world — makes a statement censoring the free speech rights of professional sports leagues in which black athletes hold a large demographic, and when these same athletes are getting racist taunts and slurs yelled at them, we can no longer “just stick to sports.”
These athletes and members of the media have a platform, and if they don’t use it to bring light to an issue that needs to be talked about, then it won’t help us make progress toward having these conversations. If the issue is “disrespecting the flag,” then Mr. Trump and other people need to look at the U.S. Flag Code and see the ways that we disrespect the American flag every single day. There is nothing in the Flag Code or the Constitution that says it is mandatory that we stand for the pledge of allegiance or national anthem. In fact, before the 2009 season, NFL teams didn’t even come out for the national anthem, they remained in the locker rooms. Now NFL players are using the time during the anthem to protest a problem in this country that needs to be addressed. One can argue that it’s not the right time or place, but if not now, when? There will never be a right time or place for the “race talk,” but if America wants to be truly great, we must make it great together by tearing down the wall that separates “right” and “left,” and have an open-minded conversation about the things that make us most uncomfortable. And yes, it can wait until the game is over.
Featured image by Dominic Ansley.