Call for Comments: Sports and Social Justice

From Mav: Football season is nearly upon us. If you know me, then you know that’s a big deal for me. Even if you’re not a football fan, assuming you live on the planet Earth, chances are you are also aware of the current battle over the rights of the football players to kneel in protest, epitomized on one side by Colin Kaepernick, and on the other, primarily by the current (sigh) president of the United States. If you follow my personal blog, you already know how I feel about this, and even if you don’t, if you listen to this show at all, it certainly wouldn’t be hard to guess. I’m going to try to not  rant as long as I normally do on these (yeah right!) because I have already written about it again, and again, and again, and again. And I’m sure this won’t be the last time.

Suffice it to say, I support the right of the players to kneel. I understand why it pisses people off. Frankly, I’d argue that the fact that that it pisses people off, is all the more reason to do it. Again, if you listen to this show, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I have a pretty liberal, social justice warrior bend to my general ideology. I support the #BlackLivesMatter movement — in part because it’s the right thing to do… but also because I’m a black man and I happen to have an all-too-human allergy to bullets.

So obviously I support the cause. But then the question becomes one of “but why do they have to protest during the anthem? Couldn’t those protests come at a more appropriate time?” And the answer to that is best seen by an argument that I recently got into on Facebook. I saw a meme posted in a conservative alt-right group that I will not be linking to here because I don’t want to give them any more press than they already have gotten. The context of their post was:

Just curious – but has anyone seen any of the NFL “kneelers” protesting… ANYWHERE… since the season ended? on their own time? I mean s- since they care so much about their message, I’m just Wondering why, once they are “off the clock” so to speak, they haven’t been out there advocating for their message… y’know, exercising that “First Amendment” – which they have perfectly free to embrace for the past 6 months

Atrocious grammar aside, this could make a great point. Except it doesn’t. Mostly because of my response which was that, of course I’ve seen them protesting all over the place. They’re on the news constantly. Going around speaking about this is literally all Kaepernick has done since he lost his job two years ago. Perhaps the reason that those who complain haven’t SEEN them protest is that they don’t actually care about the issue. They prefer to ignore black athletes literally don’t pay any attention to them EXCEPT when they’re running into each other and concussing themselves for public amusement. This is why the kneeling protest is important. Because it bothers people to the point that they complain about it, it forces people to be aware of the issue that is being protested, even if they disagree with it. This is why we hold protest marches on busy streets instead of in back alleys. The idea is to block traffic and inconvenience people. The purpose is to piss people off. If a protest is done “on your own time” and “in your own space” it’s generally largely ineffective.

The other conversation that I have seen a lot of is that “I don’t want politics in sports. They should shut the fuck up and play the game. I can’t protest at work.” This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, you can protest at work. I submit that very few of us are asked to stand for the national anthem during our day jobs. This does not happen in the school where I teach. It does not happen at the office buildings I worked at prior to returning to academia. It does not occur at construction sites not shopping malls. And if it did, you would not be forced to do it. The Supreme Court decided this in 1943 in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. Compulsory patriotism isn’t patriotic at all, and in fact violates the very ideals of which the anthem, flag and pledge of allegiance theoretically represent. By complaining that the players don’t salute the flag in the way in which you want them to, YOU are in violation of the principles upheld by the Constitution of the United States. YOU are in fact being unAmerican.

Secondly, sports have always been political. The placement of Jackie Robinson on the Dodgers in 1947 was a political event. The raising of the gloved black power fist by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics was a political event. The celebration of Jesse Owens’ victory in the 1936 Olympics was a political event. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to enlist after the draft in 1966 was a political event. Even if you want to get away from racial politics, the Olympics only exist int he first place for political reasons. The national anthem is only played at sporting events for political reasons and the the concept of NFL players standing for the anthem is politically motivated. Furthermore, it is a “tradition” that only dates back to 2009. So the idea that you are outraged that people aren’t doing a thing “they’ve always done” that literally started “a little while ago” is sort of ridiculous. Hell, the most dominant teaming football over the last decade (and I admit this only grudgingly) is literally named “the Patriots.”

So, It’s not so much that people don’t want politics in sports. Rather, the issue is more that people don’t want to be confronted with politics they don’t agree with. There are very few people complaining that “I want to support #BlackLivesMatter, but I refuse to until Kaepernick stands for the national anthem.” Because, really, that’s all it would take. Kaep, and the other players who are kneeling are simply saying “we want you to help us fix the atrocities being committed on the American people.” If it was really important for the players to stand, the solution would be quite simple. Vote for legislation protecting black men from being murdered by the police. If you are against this, that means it is more important to you that cops be able to kill unarmed black men, than it is that anyone stand up during a song.

I’ve had these conversations a lot over the last year. And, with football season starting up again. I’ll be having them a lot in the days to come. And certainly a good place to start this is doing so on this show. After all, what’s the point of having my own podcast if I can’t rant about this shit?

So that’s going to be our next episode. Wayne and I want to know your thoughts. We want to know what you’ve seen. Where have you seen people complaining about this? What counterarguments have you seen or given? What other avenues should we explore here? Usually when we plan one of these shows, we have an idea of who we want to be the guests, but this time we’re actually completely open. So we’d love to see some comments — LOTS of comments on this one, because we’d like to book guests based on people who have strong opinions here and would like to engage in the conversation.

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6 Replies to “Call for Comments: Sports and Social Justice”

  1. This topic is important and timely and I can’t wait to hear you guys riff on it! There’s so much to say about this and a FB post can’t cover it all, but I have a couple of questions: 1. Why does the National Anthem and the Flag represent the Military for some people in the first place? They claim that the players are disrespecting our heroes in the armed services (and from many religious perspectives, the claim for their status as heroes is suspect – but that’s another topic) by kneeling. The necessary connection between them is not really there. 2. If the flag is so sacred, then why are people not upset that the very ceremony itself usually “disrespects” the flag in very technical and official ways? It shouldn’t be touching the ground etc…Yet this ACTUAL offense against the flag is excused for the patriotic SPECTACLE of the ceremony. 3. What about the fact that the NFL actually gets PAID by the military to do these ceremonies anyway? They are basically recruiting opportunities, which have little to do with honor. 4. You’re totally right about what this boils down to: people don’t want to be confronted with politics that make them uncomfortable. The act of the ceremony ITSELF is a political action. If the problem is “bringing politics” into the game, it’s already there. What is offensive is the political statement that people of color are standing up for their lives, which necessitates a change in people who have a vested interest in the status quo. 5. Finally, from a purely religious perspective (which anyone is of course free to dismiss). My guess is that many of the people railing against the protests would call themselves Christian and that they find the “offense” against the flag to be in violation of some part of Christianity (God loves America and whatever). James K.A. Smith has devoted his career to exploring what we used to call “idolatry.” He puts it in other terms though. His claim is that our lives are dominated by practices that unbeknownst to us are actually religious, worship practices that shape our values and desires (the great book to read on this is Desiring the Kingdom – his new one is awesome too, You Are What You Love). He explicitly talks about how attending a football game is a worship ceremony (the Anthem is a hymn, the taking of the hats is a ritual of respect, the game itself reinforces ideas of national military might…). So basically these “good Christians” are worshiping a false idol – the AMERICAN FLAG. Ok. That’s enough of this for me. 🙂 I can’t wait to listen to your show on it, guys!

  2. Sheeeesh where to start?

    Someone told me once that people have fought and died to protect the flag. I’ve told them that is capture the flag, not war. War is a dirty means to an end, usually under the guise of “freedom”. There’s no doubt that the ultimate bravery is to serve one’s country and home. That could be the armed forces or police. Standing for a song, mouthing the words, and having your hand over your heart isn’t respect. That’s empty meaning. It is the physical embodiment of “thoughts and prayers”.

    People that think taking a knee disrespects the troops, police, and America normally have a few things in common.
    1. They don’t talk about the issue of racial injustice. They may not even thinks it exists.. something something Obama.
    2. There’s a canned answer that makes no sense: why don’t they protest on their own time? They don’t do anything in the offseason, do they? They are spoiled babies. They should be fired. Simply go read the comments section on a story and you’ll find person after spouting off the same thing.
    3. They ignore facts. Nate Boyer played in the NFL. He’s a Green Beret. He told Colin kneeling would be a better option. He explained how him and his fellow Green Berets take a knee at a grave to show respect. When on patrol, at a security halt, he would take a knee and pull security. Colin took a knee to show respect.. not disrespect.
    4. This isn’t the same across the board but in many cases, they knock the NFL. Some say they will never watch another game. I wonder how many games (aside from favorite team) they watched anyways. I wonder if they still watch. I wonder if they watched when Donte Stallworth (who killed a man) came back to the NFL. Did they care when Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault / rape? How about Ray Lewis? Ray Rice? Josh Brent was accused of manslauther of a teammate. He was allowed back on the sideline. Michael Vick.. everyone should know that story. There are tons more.

  3. This is a great topic! I agree with you, and I’ll try not to have my comment overlap too much with what everyone has already said. I have so much to say I hope it’s coherent…

    In general, aside from the odd baseball or hockey game (or the Olympics), I didn’t actually care about sports until the end of my sophomore year of college when I was appointed to be the editor of the student newspaper. And, as the editor, I figured I should learn about sports so I could give actual feedback to the sports section.

    And while I did spend a lot of time reading sports writer guides to brush up on terminology and rules, I discovered that sports journalism was more about game previews and recaps. The best sports journalism was about the intersection between the game and life. Sports have always been political.

    People know this. When I was at Mississippi State serving as editor of the student newspaper, the fiftieth year anniversary of what is called “The Game of Change” (1963) was celebrated. The all-white Mississippi State team snuck out of the state to play a game against the integrated Loyola in the NCAA tournament. In 2013, celebrating the anniversary was a big deal. Everyone was proud that Mississippi State fought against segregation.

    But now, about five years later I’ve seen a few of the same people be hostile toward the NFL protests. They don’t like the time and place. They don’t like that it’s “attacking” the military. They don’t think sports should be political at all. And yet, they’ve celebrated political-historical sports events. It seems to me there is a category of people who are happy to celebrate the civil rights movement in the past so long as it remains in the past but refuse to acknowledge #BlackLivesMatter in the present because they feel threatened and that their institutions (the military in particular) are being threatened. And this makes sense in the context of Trump, of course. The rhetoric of “Make America Great Again”/”Take Our Country Back”/”NFL players who protest should be thrown out of the country” is all about white supremacy. And Trump and his followers clearly imagine America as a country for them and people who look like/think like them.

    I grew up in Mississippi and spent twenty-three years there. So I’ve had a lot of arguments with people who are interested in tradition. And, the older I get and the more I see, especially when it’s about protecting confederate monuments or trying to stop #BlackLivesMatter protests during the national anthem (which, as you’ve said, is not really that old of a “tradition”), the more I’m convinced tradition is just a veiled way of saying they want to protect a white supremacist status quo. Ole Miss is still fighting about the tradition that is Colonel Reb (although that’s another story for another day).

    Although a lot of us so far (including me) have talked about the negative reactions Kaepernick and the other players have received, I will say that I have seen people change their minds about the protests after discussing them. They’ve been forced to acknowledge a movement that initially made them uncomfortable and, eventually, support it (even if they should have in the first place).

    I’ll conclude by saying that I used to think that sports were a waste of time and had nothing to do with “real life.” That’s clearly not true, as sports reflect on and change our lives. There’s a lot of gross stuff in sports (how the NFL has handled the protests, how the NFL has handled Bennet Omalu’s research, how the NFL has handled domestic violence, the problems documented in Play Their Hearts Out in grassroots youth basketball, the issues college athletes face because they can’t be paid). So social justice and sports go hand-in-hand. And sometimes, things change, and that’s why sports have come to matter so much to me.

  4. While I realize this is a side-note and mostly not the point, I am still fascinated that this is literally the only context I know of in which kneeling is perceived as disrespectful. Especially since the whole reason Kaepernick switched to kneeling rather than just sitting it out was to show respect for veterans while still making his statement.

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