Why Fan Reaction to NFL National Anthem Protests Is About Racism, Not Patriotism

Those critical when players kneel and lock arms in solidarity need to face up to what they really fear

There's one thing that people on every side of the national anthem debate should agree on about the pregame tradition of singing the anthem: Up until Colin Kaepernick made it a big deal, few people still thought that it was a big deal. As of August of last year, the anthem was not being given respect in the way that it is currently being represented by the millions of Americans who claim to be appalled by those who choose to sit, kneel or make a statement of protest during the song’s moment of attention before every NFL game.

All of a sudden, countless football fans claim that those two-and-a-half minutes before the game is actually more important than the game itself. Some fans now claim they'll tune out and stop watching altogether because owners and commissioner Roger Goodell would dare "allow" players to do anything other than fall in line, regardless of how peaceful the protest may be. Even Donald Trump, a noted longtime football fan who owned a USFL team in the mid-1980s and eventually led the charge to that league's quick demise by challenging the NFL for a quick buck, thought it his duty to implore his supporters to stop watching and going to the games. 

But until Kaepernick was seen sitting during the anthem before the 49ers' third preseason game of last season, fans went about treating the national anthem like they always had: Many did give it attention and respect, but many more went to the bathroom; or they saw it as snack-and-beer time; sent less-than-important text messages; and few would go out of their way to tell someone else to stand or remove their hats. The only time each year that a wide audience even paid attention to the field during the anthem was before the Super Bowl, in which case millions could be either eagerly listening for embarrassing mistakes or hoping to make a little money off of it by betting how long the singer would take to complete the song.

The factoid that 72% of Americans are against the kneeling, sitting form or protest – which has been creeping up in coverage – is, in fact, from a September 2016 Reuters poll in which 72% of responders said they found it to be "unpatriotic" while 61% disagreed with the protest itself. Meanwhile, a SurveyMonkey poll from the same time reported that 44% didn't support Kaepernick’s protest compared to 29% who did and 27% who were unsure.

But 64% of people in the same Reuters poll and 60% in the SurveyMonkey poll also said that they didn't think Kaepernick should face any punishment for it. Most may have disagreed, but they also may have respected his right to do so. These polls were also conducted at the beginning of the movement, and planty has changed in the year since they were released, including how many others clearly support and sit with Kaepernick, even when he cannot sit himself since he remains out of the league.

One of the best pieces of evidence that nobody was paying attention to the "Star-Spangled Banner" being played until Kaepernick took a knee can be found in the fact that he wasn't even called out for it until the third preseason game – he had also sat during the anthem before the first two preseason games last year. With nobody watching and no effort by Kaepernick to make a display of himself until a national narrative painted him as a person craving attention for it, the still-former NFL quarterback had time to quietly consider what he was doing, with no idea that the ripple effect would lead to the President of the United States calling him a "son of a bitch" and hundreds of players following his lead just 14 months later. As Eric Reid, a safety for the 49ers, recently wrote to explain why he decided to join Kaepernick: "We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy."

In that time, the debates have often been heated, but for the most part the people involved have remained more interested in football than politics. The conversation around Kaepernick continues, but the talk was focused recently on his employment status, not the status of whether he's standing, sitting or kneeling. We know now that getting rid of Kaepernick does not mean getting rid of the message. That message and debate was sparked again in the preseason by Marshawn Lynch, Michael Bennett and others, but after two weeks of action, people had moved on to more game-involved topics, like Kareem Hunt, Tom Brady and the boring New York football Giants.

Then Trump re-ignited the flames on Friday at his Alabama rally, inciting outrage on all sides and forced almost every NFL owner to publicly make a statement one way or the other – and they were universally on the other side of Trump. But the fact that he can't garner an ounce of public support from a league owner is significant. Every statement that was released over the weekend either called President Trump's statements "divisive" and "disrespectful" or expressed support of commissioner Goodell – including Trump supporters like Browns' Jimmy Haslem and Patriots' Bob Kraft – who made it clear that he will not punish players at the request of Trump or anyone else. Former Jets coach Rex Ryan, another Trump supporter, said: "I'm reading these comments and it's appalling to me and I'm sure it's appalling to almost any citizen in our country. It should be." That doesn't mean that Trump doesn't truly speak for a large portion of the country that is outraged by players protesting during the anthem. If they didn't exist, Trump would not have said anything, since he'd have nobody to fire up at a rally.

"Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don't always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views." –Trump on January 22nd

But even if Trump does support peaceful protests – or at least, he did nine months ago – many do not. Or they don't view this form of protest as peaceful, respectful or immune from punishment. Spend a moment on Facebook, Twitter or the comments section of an article on the subject this week, and you may find yourself reading thoughts from people who are outraged with the players who are protesting, but claim that it has nothing to do with race or prejudice. That there's nothing nefarious about their anger towards the dozens, now hundreds, of black men who took a couple of minutes to stop doing what they were told to do during a 99-years-old tradition because they wanted to bring attention – not to themselves – but to social injustices, police brutality and systemic racism.

This same refrain of potentially deflecting your true feelings away from anything that could be construed as unsavory was turned into the "I'm not racist, but…" meme. Justin Gest, author of The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequalitydescribed this term for Politico as such: "Racism is perceived to be a 'mute button' pressed on someone while they are still crying out about a sense of lost status – from a position of historic advantage, frequently in terms they have difficulty articulating. Therefore, the preface 'I'm not racist' is not a disclaimer, but rather an exhortation to listen and not dismiss or invalidate the claims of a group that feels marginalized."

Trump's supporters, the potentially marginalized, may see this form of protest as a slap in the face not to the national anthem, the American flag, the president, the country or even veterans, but to the idea that they believe these men do not have the right to use their platform for anything other than sports. As a football player, many believe that you are required to represent your city, but have no right to represent your country. However, you can't just outright say that without others hitting the "mute button" on your continuing thoughts, so the outrage is disguised.

"I'm not racist, but…" has now been transformed into: "I don't have a problem with their message, but…"

That's a huge part of the problem: That you'd be so disconnected from racial inequality and the state of it in America in the form of police brutality that you'd not even understand where a black person was coming from. Each player may have their own specific reasons for the protest, but Kaepernick did not mince words last August when asked why he sat during the anthem. "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 told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "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."

Players are already involved in their communities, and have been for years, but the fact that many football fans still think that they do nothing in their communities, is exactly why a form of protest on game day is the only way to go about it. Friends of Lynch will tell you that his Fam 1st Family Foundation and the youth of Oakland is the most important thing in his life. Bennett not only hosts a free camp for underprivileged kids in Hawaii, but has been unafraid to call out others for not doing more pro-bono work in their communities. Kaepernick won an award on September 15th from the NFL Players Association for his work in the community, including donating $1 million to various charities. Not an easy thing to do for someone who may never work in the NFL again.

An interview with a player about his charity will not move the needle. That same player sitting for less than three minutes before a game got the president's attention and has made headlines in a way that an athlete could never do through sports alone.

It's also debatable when an NFL player is truly "on the job." Is it at midnight on the day of the game, when they arrive at the stadium or literally at kickoff? Either way, as long as they aren't saying anything damaging or disparaging about the NFL or its partners, it would not be a fireable offense. Furthermore, the act of players even being required on the sideline during the national anthem may not have even started until 2009. The Department of Defense paid the NFL for staging these pre-game moments less than a decade ago but even Pentagon spokesman Dave Eastburn clarified, "DoD does not require or request that athletes be on the field during the playing of the national anthem when military members are part of the patriotic opener..."

The Steelers, Seahawks and Titans’ entire teams stayed in the locker room during the anthem on Sunday, and they were well within their rights to do so.

It would be great if the President of the United States stuck to politics. Even if Trump does want to address the protest situation, as is his right or even duty to do so since players are specifically calling out their frustrations with the state of the country, his plea for Americans to stop watching the games in a surely-fruitless attempt to hurt the NFL, and clearly goes beyond his dutiful scope as the president. He could even specifically address the issues of police brutality and systemic racism – even if he somehow disagreed that such things exist – but instead he focused once again on the bottom line, even lamenting that the NFL had become insufficiently violent. Money, ratings and his own popularity were more important in comparison to the most-watched sport in America. 

Not a single football fan has been interrupted from watching football. In fact, despite the protests being blamed for suppressing enthusiasm for the game, the #TakeAKnee movement seems to have brought more attention, with ratings for football games on CBS actually up by 4% on Sunday. 

The anthem was not something that people watched from home or paid much respect to until Kaepernick gave it the most respect he could possibly give it: By using it as a moment to express his concerns for the direction of the country and his fear for the safety of the lives of black Americans. Much like in 1954, when Baltimore Orioles general manager Arthur Ellers cancelled the ceremony because he found it "distasteful" that fans were talking and laughing during the anthem – which in turn led to pressure from the Baltimore City Council to bring it back just a month later.

Sometimes you have to turn your back on something in order to spotlight how important it is to those who had forgotten.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Rams owner Stan Kroenke was a Trump supporter, but a spokesperson for the team stated that he officially donated to the RNC, not to Trump.

President Donald Trump became the talk of the sports world over the weekend by taking aim at the NFL and NBA. Watch here.