“I have no regrets. The people who have regrets are the ones who were there in 1968 and did nothing.” —John Carlos
Over this last weekend, we all witnessed a truly unique series of events. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re well aware of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against racial inequality and police brutality that began last year. His decision to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem in order to call attention to serious issues sparked outrage across the country, and eventually led to his blackballing from the NFL in 2017.
What Kaepernick started continued in his absence. Several players across the league began taking a knee in the same manner to carry the torch into the 2017 season. This led, eventually, to someone taking notice. President Donald Trump, speaking at a re-election rally in Hunstville, Alabama, on Friday night, was clearly furious with the players.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired!” —Donald Trump
Without getting too far into the sight of the United States President lobbing obscenities against those he disagrees with, Trump’s comments sparked an immediate backlash from the league. Every single NFL owner released a statement condemning the President’s remarks, with varying levels of strength. The Falcons were no different. Here’s Arthur Blank’s statement.
“We are at our very best when we are working together, building unity and including everyone’s voice in a constructive dialog. Creating division or demonizing viewpoints that are different than our own accomplishes nothing positive and undermines our collective ability to achieve the ideals of our democracy. The NFL has historically been a strong catalyst for positive change and I’m proud of the way our players, coaches and staff use that platform to give back to our community and strive to be good citizens making a positive impact on this and future generations.”
There was a lot of buzz throughout Saturday that indicated there would be bigger protests during Sunday’s games, and those rumors ended up being true. Every team took part in the protests in some way. Several owners—including Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank—joined the players on the sideline for their preferred gesture of protest.
Atlanta’s players and coaches were all involved in some way. The vast majority of the players and staff, Blank included, locked arms in front of the bench. A few players, like C Alex Mack, stood close to the others, but chose to place their hand over their heart as they normally would. Two players, though, chose to kneel—DTs Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe. They were directly in the center of the Falcons bench, perhaps deliberately so.
The Falcons were unified—they were together, on the sideline, during the protest. But they were also diverse, allowing each player and staff member their choice of how they wished to be involved. Unlike some teams, there were no backhanded comments after the fact. The Falcons claim to be a brotherhood, and although there were clearly differing viewpoints on the protest among the team, all were able to take part in their own way.
Per Dan Quinn, this was probably a one-and-done sort of thing, because the coach said he’s not expecting anyone to kneel this coming Sunday against Buffalo. The team will link arms on the sideline during the anthem, however.
Dan Quinn said he doesn't expect anyone to kneel anymore during the anthem. The message moving forward is "solidarity."— Knox Bardeen (@knoxbardeen) September 27, 2017
These protests of racial inequality have, in turn, caused another backlash. There were videos of fans burning season tickets, jerseys, and the like. A fire chief outside of Pittsburgh wrote a hate-filled rant on Facebook, including mentioning that Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin “...just added himself to the list of no good n——rs.” There were many other ridiculous decisions, including a county police department in Ohio banning their officers from working security—while they’re off-duty—at any NFL games.
The central theme of all these reactions appears to be the same. It’s all based on the belief and assumption that those protesting are disrespecting America, the flag, the anthem, veterans, and the like. That belief, and the assumption necessary for that belief, are both completely and utterly wrong.
It’s not a matter of “I interpret their protest this way.” There is no ambiguity in the protests whatsoever. The players have made it abundantly clear—many, many times, in fact—that they are not protesting the flag or the anthem or veterans. Several of the players protesting are veterans. They’re protesting the awful condition of racial inequality, including systemic racism and police brutality, that has been getting progressively worse in this country.
Rosa Parks wasn’t protesting the bus or the public transit system. Those on hunger strikes aren’t protesting the food. The civil rights activists on Bloody Sunday in 1965 weren’t protesting the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL. John Carlos and Tommie Smith—the U.S. Olympians in 1968 who had perhaps the most famous of all sports protests—weren’t protesting the podium, the medals they had just received, or the Olympics themselves.
This is not something that is hard to understand. The target of the protest, racial inequality, and the vehicle of the protest, the national anthem, are two completely separate things. NFL players, time and time again, have tried to make it clear how much they love this country and respect our veterans. They merely chose the anthem because they knew it would gather attention and spark a dialogue for change—the entire point of a protest in the first place. Clearly, it appears to be working.
So, why is it that so many people continue to espouse, against all logic, that these players are purposefully and blatantly disrespecting our country and our military?
The answer is painfully simple, and also apparently incredibly difficult for those very same people to come to terms with.
It’s a hard truth, but I need those people—if any of you happen to have read this far, and if you have, thank you—to hear it. That truth is that the issues being brought to light by these protests—racial inequality, systemic racism, and police brutality—are very difficult to confront and deal with.
They were uncomfortable for me to confront, too. I used to be a different person, with different views. I’ve changed, but only after hard reflection and a long time to process and come to terms with the truth. That’s the main thing I’ve learned—you can ignore these issues for years, pretend they don’t exist, blame the oppressed, all manner of things. As a child, I was taught “to not see color.” But doing that doesn’t make these issues disappear, and it doesn’t help anyone move forward. It only makes things worse by continuing the status quo.
The status quo is not acceptable. Not for me, not for you, not for anyone.
Protests tend to be very unpopular when they first occur. Take, for example, the Freedom Riders and the March on Washington in 1963. Both are now looked at pivotal moments in civil rights history, and viewed as unabashed successes. But at the time, most Americans believed these protests would actually hurt the chances of the civil rights movement. Need another example? How about Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps one of the most universally respected figures in American civil rights history. In 1966, not so much
: 63% of Americans viewed King negatively at the time, compared to just 4% in 2011.
Just because something is unpopular when it first happens, doesn’t mean it will be unpopular forever. Today, there are plenty of fans doing completely ridiculous things, like threatening to boycott the NFL, burning jerseys, and the like. But in 20 years, looking back at the events of this weekend (and perhaps the rest of the 2017 NFL season), I don’t think those particular fans will remember their actions fondly.
NFL players are not entertainment robots. They don’t exist only to perform for you on Sundays. They are people, first and foremost, and they have families and lives outside of this game. Many of them experienced the issues they are protesting firsthand. Take Michael Bennett, for example. He was detained and threatened by police just for being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time less than a month ago. Bennett allegedly had a gun placed to head, with an officer remarking that he would “blow [his] f—king head off” if he moved, and was cuffed and thrown into the back of a police car.
Again, Bennett was guilty of no crime. He was afforded none of his constitutional rights. Bennett was allegedly racially profiled and had his life threatened for no reason. And yet, if you’d really like a close look at the state of racism in this country, look no further than the Las Vegas Police Department smearing Bennett to try and cover their backs.
Perhaps the most insulting thing one can do in this situation is to make the dubious claim that “NFL players shouldn’t protest because they’re successful.” Let me just tell those who take that tact right now that not only is that wrongheaded—many of these players worked as hard as humanly possible to get to where they are today, and many grew up in situations so bad that I can barely fathom them—it’s also just plain wrong.
Players have a right to say what they want, just as we all do. Telling them they can’t have a voice because they’ve managed to reach the mountaintop of their career, because they play a game for money, and/or because they’re successful and well-off financially now is one of the most ridiculous statements one can make. And if you believe that they shouldn’t be able to protest while on an NFL field, that ultimately appears to be up to their bosses: the owners. They don’t seem to have a problem with it, so why do you?
Perhaps you also might want to know what’s actually disrespectful to our country, our flag, and our veterans? That attitude of “stay in your lane,” the constant drum-beat of “stick to sports,” and the state of civil rights for people of color in the United States. We are all Americans, and we all have a right to peaceful protest—whether you agree with the point of the protest, the vehicle of the protest, or the people protesting. Our veterans, including my grandfather, fought to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans. Not just the ones that say things you agree with, or protest when it’s “convenient” for you, or in a place that’s “appropriate.”
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. —Edmund Burke
If you’ve managed to make it this far, congratulations. My hope is that at least one person who blindly hated the NFL protests stops to think—if only for a moment—about what it is they are actually mad about. It’s not really about disrespecting the anthem, the flag, our country, or our veterans. It’s about being uncomfortable with the truth of how things are for many people of color in this country.
There’s room for all people in our Falcons family. White, black, asian, latino, Muslim, Christian—all are welcome, all are cherished. You can wear any jersey you want on Sundays, even Kroy Biermann. If you want to kneel for the anthem, we welcome you. If you want to stand, arms locked with your loved ones, we welcome you. And if you want to put your hand over your heart and remove your hat, we welcome you too. The only thing we don’t welcome, and won’t tolerate any longer, is hate.
There may be some of you who feel that they can no longer be a part of our family. Those of you that have eagerly burned your season tickets, your jerseys, your merchandise, and anything to do with your supposed favorite team.
To all those in that category, I say good riddance.
We may have witnessed one of the defining moments in American sports history this past weekend. Ten years from now, twenty, thirty, more—what will you tell people about this week?
“I really put those over-privileged players in their place!”
“I stood with and supported those people, even though it wasn’t popular.”
It’s an easy decision for me. What about you, Falcons family? It is my genuine, sincere hope that we can all RISE UP together, support what these players are doing, and watch Falcons football on Sunday.