“O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!”
This classic line wraps up The Star Spangled Banner, a song that is ingrained into nearly every American’s psyche. It’s not because many Americans feel compelled to memorize our country’s melodic tune, but because it is ubiquitous to sporting events. Ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, kneeled in protest of these very lines a little over a year ago, begging the question of why so many black and brown people being shot down by police with impunity in a country that supposedly bolsters freedom and bravery. This action has now caused Kaepernick to be what many people consider “blacklisted” by the NFL and has precipitated a boycott of the league, one that is materializing this season.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…to me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick said in an exclusive interview obtained by NFL Media in 2016. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
In response, the 49ers also issued a statement about Kaepernick’s decision.
“The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony,” the team said. “It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
Kaepernick’s kneeling during the anthem propelled him to become one of the most polarizing figures, not just in sports, but in the media and politics. He’s been vitriolically criticized across the board, although primarily by political conservatives: In USA Today, 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz called him a “knucklehead” and suggested instead that a “rich spoiled athlete ought to give all his money to take care of fallen police officers.”
Infamous social media personality Tomi Lahren amassed almost 3 million views on her Facebook video when she virulently attacked Kaepernick as a “whiny, indulgent, attention-seeking cry baby.” While acceding to Kaepernick’s right to freedom of speech, Lahren expressed that his anthem protest was extremely misguided.
“[The] American flag and national anthem aren’t symbols of a ‘white America, black America, brown America, or purple America, for that matter,” Lahren said in the video.
The most consistent piece of criticism directed at Kaepernick, especially by ESPN pundits, was that football should not be politicized. However, the sphere of sports, particularly football, has become immensely politicized. At any given game, the pageantry of the military are vividly featured: paratroopers descended to midfield, Air Force pilots fly over stadiums, and the presentation of the flag is an important pre-game ritual. Furthermore, between 2010 and 2015, the Department of Defense paid about six million dollars to 16 NFL teams to present various salutes to the military.
In the 2017 season, which has just commenced, the evidence is piling up implicating that the league has blacklisted Kaepernick as a form of punishment for his protest. In 2013, Mike Glennon was a third-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but was picked up by the Chicago Bears for 3 years/$45 million, despite having only five NFL wins and a pedestrian 84.6 quarterback rating to his name. Josh McCown, who had been a backup quarterback for the entirety of his career, secured a six million dollar deal with the New York Jets. Those are just two examples among a growing list this season of similarly mediocre quarterbacks to sign free agent deals. Others include Brian Hoyer, Nick Foles, Landry Jones, and Matt Barkley.
It also important to note that while Kaepernick is apparently not being signed by NFL teams due to his protest, players with other controversial offenses have remained relatively unscathed in the signing processes. These players have committed domestic violence, been arrested for driving under the influence, or have been recorded making deeply misogynistic or racist remarks. Some of the harshest penalties that the NFL has doled out were a product of the Patriots’ “Spygate” program, where Patriots personnel videotaped New York Jets defensive signals, and the New Orleans Saints bounty program, where players on the Saints defense were paid to injure members of the opposing team. This is indicative of the league’s propensity to punish tactical offenses, as opposed to the much more egregious violence and toxicity incurred by players.
In June, social media activist Shaun King urged his 783,000 Twitter followers to boycott the NFL in response to blacklisting Kaepernick. The movement to boycott the league has gained momentum since, strengthened by support from the NAACP and current and former members of the New York City Police Department, including famed corruption fighter Frank Serpico. Earlier in September, almost 1,000 people showed up outside the NFL headquarters in New York City wearing shirts emblazoned with “#imwithkap”, a hashtag that had been trending on Twitter days prior.
Already progress has been tangible. CNN reported that Thursday’s kickoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots drew 21.8 million viewers, which stands in contrast to the 25.2 million views amassed at last season’s opener. Many news sources have avoided mentioning the boycott, citing the devastating impact of Hurricane Irma to blame. However, last week’s US Open tennis tournament, which coincided with Hurricane Irma, was the highest rated in the network’s history. According to Deadline, ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. Open women’s final was up 36% compared to last year.
As the football season continues to unfold, it will be fascinating to observe if the boycott, in addition to the concussion crisis, will yield adverse effects on NFL ratings, and if so, what the historically nationalistic entity will do in response.
Rosa Munson-Blatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org