New opponents: pro-athletes and politics

Protests, freedom of expression are fundamental rights for every citizen


In 1968, Tommie Jones and Carlos Smith stepped onto an Olympic podium in front of the crowds, raised their fists and bowed their heads during the national anthem. The athletes were protesting the inequality faced by people of color in America. Millions were outraged. 

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, again in protest of the inequality and systemic oppression targeted towards people of color. Again, millions of Americans were outraged.

The weekend of Sept. 22, owners, athletes and coaches from around the country protested comments made by President Donald Trump who called for athletes to be fired after kneeling for the national anthem. The response, while uplifting, marks a change in attitudes since Kaepernick protested.

In late August 2016 after Kaepernick’s original response to the anthem, coach Jack Del Rio of the Oakland Raiders showed his disapproval: “Our organization believes that you should pay respect to the flag. Save those individual decisions to express yourself for an individual forum.” 

This past Sunday, however, the Oakland Raiders had one of the most cohesive team protests with the entire offensive line kneeling and Del Rio standing arm-in-arm with other players.

Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, said in a September 2016 interview that “the forum of the NFL and the forum on television is a very significant thing. I’m for it being used in every way we can to support the great, great contributors in our society and that’s people that have supported America, the flag, and there’s no reason not to go all out right there. But this weekend, the Cowboys players, coaches and Jerry Jones himself took a knee before the anthem and locked arms during it.

Protest and freedom of expression are things that should be valued and respected as fundamental rights as a citizen of the United States. Seeing the NFL come together in support of this was encouraging, but, it prompted one to question why Del Rio and Jones chose to stand in solidarity now—in defiance of Trump and defense of Kaepernick—and not in 2016.

The difference is that this protest has been whitewashed. While Kaepernick—like Jones and Smith in the 1968 Olympics—was protesting the injustice and systemic racism of the U.S. this weekend was a protest against Trump and all his vitriol. It was more accepted because it didn’t directly address the painful issues of race in this country. 

Nothing makes that more obvious than the response from this past weekend. Millions of fans booed, and videos of men burning their season tickets circulated social media. 

After the Pittsburgh Steelers opted to stay in the locker room for the national anthem, Paul Smith, a fire chief in a Pittsburgh suburb, took to Facebook to say that head coach Mike Tomlin “just added himself to the list of no good n——.” While action is being taken, there’s no certainty that Smith will lose his job over his words. Meanwhile, Kaepernick remains unsigned for his.

In Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, he wrote, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.” He understood what Jones and Smith were protesting and what, 48 years later, Kaepernick is still protesting when he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” 

Robinson spoke a truth that those who boo in anger, who spit words of vitriol and bigotry, cannot. America was and still remains a deeply imperfect country where freedoms promised in the Bill of Rights are conditional based on the color of one’s skin. The systemic oppression that people of color face has permeated into every aspect of life, and, if America truly is the land of the free, then it needs to prove that it is also a home for those brave enough to speak up to injustice.



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