In truth, the political significance of taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem at football games had begun to wane long before President Donald Trump weighed in this past Friday night. Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who launched the campaign, explained it this way to the media in 2016: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” As a result, the NFL, with its ostentatious displays of militaristic patriotism, became an ideological battleground. On one side stood Kaepernick, and a gradual trickle of other players, employing a modestly dramatic tactic on a large platform to draw attention to racist violence and systemic inequality. On the other side were people who saw this act as openly hostile to America and its military, and who viewed the millionaire black athletes participating in the protest as ungrateful, undeserving, and ultimately indebted to the very institutions they were critiquing.
Kaepernick’s symbolic protest soon spread to other sports, from the WNBA down to Little League. But a majority of his NFL brotherhood declined to participate. Some teams, notably the Seattle Seahawks, opted for a locked-arm stance during the anthem as a show of “unity,” though it was unclear whether they were protesting over the issues that Kaepernick was raising. The same gesture was replicated by a number of NBA teams at the beginning of their season last fall. By then, these anthem protests had been diluted, much the same way that denunciations of racism have often morphed into the less threatening language of diversity and inclusivity. The original spirit and potency of Kaepernick’s protest was lost.
This all seemed to change when Trump made Kaepernick’s gesture the centerpiece of an attack on black athletes. During a campaign rally for Senator Luther Strange in Alabama, Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL 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!’” He delivered the statement like the consummate showman he is, lifting that last “He’s fired!” to a roar befitting a mob’s rallying cry. Over the next several days, prominent athletes across the country came out in support of Kaepernick, as did the owners of NFL teams, even going as far as to adopt Kaepernick’s kneeling pose. But that had the effect of changing his protest once again, taking it further away from his particular message about racial oppression and police brutality.
Trump lashed out at Kaepernick just as his Republican colleagues in the Senate were once again faltering in their attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and just as Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, was still half-flooded, with no power and very little communication with the outside world. But these very real political challenges seemed far beyond Trump’s understanding or desire to address, so he fell back instead on his tried and trusted techniques for whipping up the fervor of his supporters, through thinly veiled racist attacks and by insulting black people who refuse to accept second-class citizenship.
This, we must recall, is precisely how Trump became a competitive candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in the first place. Through Barack Obama’s first term, Trump doggedly chased the non-story of his fake birth certificate, casting doubt on Obama’s right to run for, let alone be elected, president of the United States. Having failed to knock Obama from his perch of power and popularity, Trump stewed in muted rage at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, where Obama mocked Trump’s embrace of “birtherism” and made light of his accomplishments as a reality-television host.
A measure of the fragility of Trump’s ego is that he entered the 2016 presidential race partly as a riposte to the black president who had shamed him on a national stage. The longer Trump’s presidency lasts, the more clear it becomes that Trump has little agenda aside from this. He is a politician with no policy goals except to undo anything and everything achieved by the Obama administration. “Make America Great Again” could easily be interpreted as “Make Black People Know Their Place Again.”
This is why the president finds the anthem protests of black athletes like Kaepernick worth denouncing. His ire is fueled, in large part, by a resentment of black achievement, and perhaps even more by a resentment of the absence of black deference. The NFL anthem protests are highly visible acts of a kind of defiance that Trump and his supporters find intolerable.
This remained true even though the message of those protests had shifted. With Kaepernick effectively blackballed from the league this season, the taking-a-knee protest came to be viewed as being in solidarity with a jobless Kaepernick rather than a stance against police violence. It is a cause worth debating: Kaepernick is barely 30 years old, with Super Bowl experience, and in good shape. His statistics are comparable to any number of starting quarterbacks in the league who all have jobs this year. That he has not been signed, even to a backup position, is a damaging rebuttal to the cries of meritocracy. If skills and ability were the only factors that mattered, would he not be employed? The league’s biggest stars and best quarterbacks, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and New England’s Tom Brady, are on the record saying he should be. But Kaepernick committed a sin much graver than playing poorly: He demanded justice from his country.
Whether or not Kaepernick is employed in the NFL is trivial in comparison to the discussion he wanted to start about justice. The same goes for the curse words Trump used to describe protesting players. His calls for their firing are more alarming, given his position of authority, but even that is immaterial when weighed against the life-or-death consequences for black people that follow from police impunity. Yet it is the words of the president that caused the biggest reaction.
On Sunday, more players and teams responded to Trump’s criticism by kneeling, standing in locked arms, or not showing up for the anthem at all. To which the president tweeted: “Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”
His concern for the NFL’s declining ratings aside, the president has likely defanged the anthem protest. Thanks to his intervention, even taking a knee, against Trump’s express wishes, will now be seen only as an objection to his presidency or an assertion of free speech rights, issues tangential to the fight for racial justice. In this respect, the anthem protest becomes an empty action aimed at an empty man.
This controversy has produced some meaningful critiques of the president by people who previously lived by the dictum “stick to sports” as if it were a religious calling. But it has turned Trump into the focal point, an easy and predictable foe in a political battle with low stakes. Winning a war of words against Trump is hardly a victory; his rhetorical prowess doesn’t extend beyond 140 characters, and even there he is severely challenged. To address the entrenched issues of power, racism, and inequality that existed long before Trump requires a willingness to indict America, and its symbols, as Kaepernick has done consistently.
It is not all for naught. The protest could recover its meaning through an organized effort and messaging. Where the anthem protest has succeeded is in being a conversation starter, but what it has never been attached to is any actionable demand. If a majority of the NFL’s players—including some white ones—were to kneel during the national anthem and tell the media they would keep kneeling until the Justice Department conducted investigations into every police department in the country for patterns of racism and excessive force, they could resuscitate the protest back into its radical form.
Or they could go further, organizing a work strike until each local government of a host city of an NFL team implements the policies outlined in the Movement for Black Lives platform. They could, if this is too much for them, even simply state that they would no longer participate in the perfunctory shows of support for the military until each NFL owner has donated as much money as they did to Trump’s campaign to the organizations Kaepernick has supported over the past year.
In short, they have to go beyond bland calls for “unity” and gestures that even Trump can distort for his own means. They have to reach into their untapped activist spirit. Trump has made it clear what he and his supporters think about them. They can leave no doubt about where they stand.