Once again, one of the biggest stories in the NFL this year is player protests of the national anthem. To add gas to the fire, earlier this year Nike released a campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick with the tag line “Believe in Something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” As you all know, the nation is split over the protest and over Kaepernick. I have thought of historical similarities I can talk about. There are plenty dealing with the race issue and sports, Muhammad Ali protesting the draft and Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the black power salute in the 1968 Olympics, just to name two. However, I also think there is a historical explanation to the current anthem debate. Knowing the history will not solve any of the issues, but possibly might help understand it better. The protesters have stated that they are only protesting injustice, so why does kneeling during a sporting event feel like an attack on the military and police? I believe it all has to do with 9/11.
9/11 is the most dramatic day of my lifetime. It has been compared to JFK’s death for my parents and Pearl Harbor for my grandparents. For those old enough to remember that day, we will never forget it or how we felt. For myself, I was a master’s student at Va Tech in 2001. The semester had just started and I was spending the day working on a paper for class. After a few hours writing I had a question and so called a friend who told me to stop what I was doing and turn on the TV. Following his advice I flipped on my set just shortly after the second plane crashed into the second tower. I spent the rest of the day, really the next few days, glued to the news.
Like most Americans, I was devastated. I did not know what to do, I ended up helping my church organize a blood drive so I could stay busy. The next day was even harder, I had to teach a class on the Civil War and I did not know what to say. I could not just launch into the war, not that day, I felt I had to say something calming first. Over the next couple of days, I ran through a gamut of emotions, from fear to sorrow to anger. I do not remember how many days I, and everyone around me, walked around in a daze. I also cannot remember the day-to-day occurrences, but I do remember one thing, after a week off, the NFL decided to play football.
To be honest I had to look that up. In my memory the NFL played the week of the attacks, that is how vivid the scenes of the NFL are in my mind. When looking up some facts to write this piece I was reminded that the NFL decided to cancel that first week. They even considered canceling the entire season. There were some who did not see sports as a priority after such a tragic event. Though they were right, sports was not a priority, many others felt the need to show our resilience by not giving into the terrorists and continue to live our lives. Finally, many just felt that what America needed was a distraction from our lives and the NFL decided to play football.
I know this may sound skewed, but my memories of that Sunday are almost as ingrained in my mind as 9/11 itself. The emotions were overwhelming, as players ran out of the tunnels carrying American flags. Every stadium was covered with flags, both on the field and in the stands. Fans from both sides stood and shouted USA in an act of unity. When the anthem played, emotions overtook both players and fans as tears flowed easily. This act of flag waving went even beyond football, it seemed as if every home and every car flew a flag for at least the remainder of that season. With all that had happened, football helped, even if just a little, it helped. It somehow reinforced that we would endure.
Jump ahead several years. 9/11 has not been forgotten, but its impact has softened. Flags are flown on holidays from many homes, but few are seen on cars anymore. However, when an athlete in the NFL kneels down during the anthem to protest, I think for many, even if subconsciously, there is still a connection to 9/11. I could be wrong, but I do not think that the NBA or MLB would draw as much criticism as the NFL. Baseball was playing at the same time as 9/11, but at least for me I don’t remember any iconic images of when baseball played, outside of the Yankees. I know it happened, but they are not as much part of our shared past. Football, the flag, the military, and our first responders are now all connected. Right or wrong, for many Americans protesting the flag during a football game is the same as protesting our military to their face.
Having said all that, the other side has a tragic and even a deeper history. The history of racial injustice is older than the history of our nation and even more engrained in the lives of those who live it than the NFL is to its fans. From slavery to Jim Crow to unarmed black men shot in the streets, there is a reason to stand up for social justice. Kaepernick meant to protest injustice; I do not think he set out to disrespect armed service members or first responders. He had to expect some kickback, but if I had to guess, he had no idea the firestorm he would create by kneeling. Maybe he had not thought of the connection the NFL has with the military or police, or maybe he had. We are still talking about him three years later. Maybe both sides can try to understand each other’s history. It will not solve all our problems, but maybe if we try, it can bring a bit more understanding.