Raising Fists and Taking Knees

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CLAgency, the College of Liberal Arts, or the University of Minnesota.

 

 

Written By Alex Jensen


Last Friday, before a crowd in Huntsville, Alabama, President Trump made the following remark in response to American football players kneeling during the pre-game national anthem:


“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL [National Football League] owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”


Among those players to whom Trump was referring is, of course, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who made headlines last year when he became the first to kneel, rather than stand, for the “Star-Spangled Banner” prior to each game.


Though it seems to be lost on Trump, Kaepernick’s decision to kneel was not a gesture of disrespect towards the flag or the nation, but rather an act of protest in response to a number of recent police killings of African-Americans and the subsequent exonerations and acquittals of the officers involved. A month before the former 49ers quarterback’s decision to first take the knee, police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana shot and killed Alton Sterling. The very next day, a Saint Anthony police officer killed Philando Castile, who apparently fit the description of a robbery suspect due to his “wide-set nose”. Both Sterling and Castile were African-American. Their killers were never convicted of a crime.


This is the context in which Kaepernick staged his protest of the national anthem last year, and he has been explicit about his motivations:


“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. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”


Kaepernick’s clarity on this point proved to be of no avail, as many football fans and the League itself, like President Trump, interpreted his kneeling as a gesture of national disrespect. Systematically blackballed by the NFL, Kaepernick found himself unemployed this year as teams refused to offer him a contract, instead filling their rosters with players who were inarguably inferior.  


But with Trump’s comments this weekend, the tide has seemed to change. This week, players and coaches from a variety of teams have expressed solidarity with those like Kaepernick, linking arms, kneeling, or remaining in the locker rooms during the pre-game national anthem.
This widespread adoption of Kaepernick’s act of protest is inspiring, but it is not new. There is a long history of athletes protesting the national anthems of their own countries in order to raise awareness of political, social, and economic problems.

 

Kaepernick’s protest is, to take but one example, reminiscent of that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who, in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, staged a similar demonstration. Members of the United States Olympic track team, Smith had won first-place in the 200 meter dash, setting a world record of 19.83 seconds, and Carlos was not far behind, clocking in at 20.10 seconds and winning third-place. As they ascended the podium to receive their gold and bronze medals respectively, Smith and Carlos raised their firsts in a Black Power salute just as the “Star-Spangled Banner” began to play. Like that of Kaepernick, Smith and Carlos’ gesture was not intended to insult veterans or disrespect the flag, but to address issues of racial and class oppression in the United States. In addition to raising their fists, Smith and Carlos removed their shoes to symbolize poverty, wore beads honoring the thousands of black Americans who had been lynched in the preceding centuries, and, in defiance of Olympic protocols, unzipped their jackets to express solidarity with working class people of all colors. Smith explained the motivations underlying their act of protest in terms similar to those of Kaepernick today:


“We were concerned about the lack of black assistant coaches. About how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title. About the lack of access to good housing and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges.”


Smith and Carlos, like their contemporary counterparts in American football, met with hostility from white fans and the their athletic governing body, in this case the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While they raised their fists, Smith and Carlos were booed and screamed at by members of the audience, and, upon returning to the United States, received death threats. Ultimately, they were suspended from the United States track team and expelled from the Olympic Games by then-IOC President Avery Brundage, a man who, in 1936, had allowed Nazi salutes at the Berlin Olympics.


Though Smith and Carlos met with hostility in 1968, they’ve come to be seen as national sports heroes, commemorated in a now iconic photo of their act of protest. Explaining his decision to raise his fist that day, Carlos said that “morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they [the IOC] had.”


“I had a moral obligation to step up,” said Carlos. Forty-nine years later, athletes still find themselves with a moral obligation to step up. Even if stepping up means taking the knee.