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Column: The US football players kneeling for the national anthem are doing something important

There is a long history of athletes taking a stand for justice, writes Julien Mercille.

Julien Mercille Associate professor, UCD

COLIN KAEPERNICK IS a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL, the American football league. His celebrity status in the United States is comparable to that of Jamie Heaslip, Gordon D’Arcy or James McClean in Ireland.

Kaepernick has been making a lot of waves recently—not for his athletic performances, but for the stance he has taken on racism and police violence in the United States. At the beginning of matches, when the national anthem is played and all players and fans are supposed to stand up to honour the flag and the country, Kaepernick remains seated or kneels instead.

He wants to raise awareness about police brutality against minorities and social injustice. He also pledged to donate $1 million (€890k) of his $11.9 million salary to racial equality efforts this year.

He explained to the media:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. 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 [police] getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

In this good video he answers journalists’ questions and outlines his views.

Source: KTVU/YouTube

His coach supports him and told the media that Kaepernick “is shedding light on the situation that is heinous and shouldn’t happen in this country. We all have inalienable rights as a citizen of this country. They’re being violated and that’s what I think Colin is standing up for.”

The “Kaepernick Effect” is spreading fast as many other athletes and teams have followed him. This map and timeline show how the protests have evolved over the last few weeks.

How others have taken up the cause

In particular, soccer star Megan Rapinoe also kneeled during the national anthem before a game. Rapinoe, who helped her team to win a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, said:

It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this.

In addition, NFL players Eric Reid and Jeremy Lane joined Kaepernick by kneeling during the national anthem. High school football players across the country did the same, just like three volleyball players at West Virginia University Tech and an entire girls’ volleyball team in Minneapolis, as well as the high school band in the video below. NFL players locked arms, raised fists or kneeled on 11 September and even cheerleaders have joined in. There are a number of pictures from those protests here.

Source: John Sasaki/YouTube

President Obama has also commented on Kaepernick and endorsed his “constitutional right to make a statement.”

Of course, those who go against the grain to denounce injustice often suffer negative consequences, which explains partly why some athletes have so far chosen to remain silent. For example, Brandon Marshall, a Denver Broncos player, also protested the national anthem but immediately lost an endorsement deal last week.

However, Marshall said:

This is our only platform to be heard. I think a lot of times people want us to just shut up and entertain them, shut up and play football. But we have issues as well. We’re educated individuals who went to college. When we have an opinion, I feel like a lot of people bash us for it.

Some coaches might also not look favorably on activist athletes. US ice hockey team coach John Tortorella, known for his emotional outbursts, declared that he’d bench any player who doesn’t respect the national anthem.

“Small gestures can go a long way”

But there is a long history of athletes taking a stand for justice, from Jackie Robinson (baseball) to Muhammad Ali (boxing). In fact, one would need to be rather blind not to see the deep inequalities in the United States, whether they’re racial, economic or political.

Indeed, only a few days ago, yet another unarmed black man was killed by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The police officer who shot him has now been charged with manslaughter. Video footage showed the victim was unarmed.

The Guardian has conducted a systematic compilation of police killings in the US. It finds that black people are killed at twice the rate of white, Hispanic and native Americans. About 25% of blacks killed are unarmed, compared with 17% of white people.

It is clear that police violence is a real problem. As Kaepernick said, “I can’t look in the mirror, and see other people dying on the street, that should have the same opportunities that I’ve had.”

Superstars receive a lot of exposure from the media and small gestures can go a long way toward bringing attention to injustice. Therefore, it would be nice to see more of them use their privileged position to do so. For example, imagine what could happen if Rory McIlroy or Conor McGregor raised such issues the next time they’re asked how they feel about the 14th hole or how they plan on knocking out the other guy?

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin. Twitter: @JulienMercille

More from Julien:

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About the author:

Julien Mercille  / Associate professor, UCD

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