Press Box: requiem for a protest

Illustration by Iain Duffus

Zach Joachim

Sports editor



Colin Kaepernick was originally ostracized by the NFL community for breaking the cardinal rule of American sports; he brought politics onto the field with him.


Now, Kaepernick has paid for his heresy with the loss of his livelihood. As the league kneels and locks arms in the largest unified protest major American sports have ever seen, Kaepernick is jobless and his message forgotten.


This demonstration may appear to be a victory for the marginalized and disenfranchised on surface level. In reality, it is an epic failure — a clever ruse orchestrated by those in power who seek to defer attention from the real issues at hand.


At a rally in Alabama on Friday, Sept. 22, President Trump elluded to Kaepernick and his fellow athlete-activists, saying NFL owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field right now,” when players protest during the anthem.


This vitriol sparked the now infamous expanded anthem protests. All of a sudden, the NFL — owners, coaches and players alike — are united against a common enemy, emboldened in their desire to speak out against institutionalized racism and bigotry just as Kaepernick did.




Wrong. In reality, the NFL’s response to Trump’s comments could not have been more inorganic.


All of a sudden, after all the atrocities this president has committed, from joking about violating women to mocking mentally challenged children and failing to denounce white supremacists, this is what crossed the line? One “son of a bitch” comment was where things went too far?




What’s more, these protests could not be further removed from Kaepernick’s original initiative. The then 49ers quarterback said he began sitting and subsequently kneeling for the anthem in protest of police brutality against people of color.


“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.


Whatever this new wave of protests seeks to denounce, its spirit is nothing like the movement Kaepernick sparked a year ago. Although the demonstrations are similar, the cause behind them is more warped and twisted.  


“I’m disappointed, and I’m unimpressed,” NFL Hall of Fame tight end and current Fox Sports analyst Shannon Sharpe said of the recent surge in anthem demonstrations. “Because this wasn’t a protest. This was unity — so what are we showing solidarity against? We’re showing solidarity because President Trump challenged NFL owners. It wasn’t until he came for the NFL that their conscience was shocked, but it wasn’t their conscience that moved them, it was their cash.”


When Trump directly challenged the actions of NFL owners, he crossed a line in the sand. The resulting league-wide surge in protests is not the valiant, organic defense of free speech it has largely been depicted as. Rather, it is a manifestation of NFL owners flexing their muscles. These protests are a public relations move — a brilliant one at that.


Under the guise of Kaepernick’s protests, owners descended from luxurious VIP sweets to show solidarity with their disenfranchised employees. Really, the NFL is one big happy family of social activism. We’re all just singing kumbaya at this point.


In all seriousness though, the hypocrisy necessary to put on such a performance is revolting. Owners such as Washington’s Daniel Snyder, the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, New England’s Robert Kraft, the Jets’ Woody Johnson and Jacksonville’s Shahid Khan — owners who gave a million dollars for the inauguration of President Trump — now portray themselves as appalled at his comments.   


“What are we uniting against? What are we standing for now?” Sharpe said. “If that’s what it took, if what (Trump) said shocked your conscious, made you chose to unite — so be it. But there’s a bigger issue — the racism and the injustices in America which Colin Kaepernick took a knee for in the beginning, and only Martellus and Michael Bennett, Malcolm Jenkins and a handful of other (players) still understand what the issues are.”


Jenkins and the Bennett brothers are the most outspoken of the few players who joined Kaepernick’s protests last season. With the majority of the league now wrapped up in the owner’s ruse, these activist’s political message has been shrouded in a veil of farcical unity.


Atlantic columnist Van Newkirk illuminated this contradiction in an article, published last week, titled “Football Has Always Been a Battleground in the Culture War.” Newkirk argues that the two messages simply cannot go hand-in-hand.


“The net effect of the protests across the league, done in full embrace of the pageantry that Kaepernick’s protest seems to reject, was to reassure fans that it was both possible to love an unchanged NFL and care about the racial issues Kaepernick brought to the game,” Newkirk wrote. “Just under the surface, the truth is that the gridiron is one of the main arenas where the fight over injustice and American identity is waged, and that fight won’t be ending anytime soon.”


The best lesson to be taken from this charade, therefore, is that the fight Newkirk eludes to is an ongoing one. Kaepernick was and continues to be ostracized for mixing politics with sports, while the very owners who refuse to employ him engage in a mockery of his demonstration to show their “solidarity” with players.


It’s really an ingenious public relations move, to be frank. It’s brilliant because NFL owners — and Trump, for that matter — have long realized what America seems to just now be figuring out.


Sports, and particularly the NFL, are not a safe haven from politics and clashes of cultural identity, but rather, a societal manifestation thereof.


“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports,” said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. “And unfortunately, nothing more divisive.”


Colin Kaepernick didn’t bring politics on the field with him last year — he illuminated the extent to which they make up the foundations of the modern sports community, a corner of society which has long distanced itself from the political spectrum.


And for better or worse, this enlightenment is here to stay — the revolution is, in fact, televised.

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