This article is a part of a series written by the Culture staff of the HPR. It is the product of discussion and debate at our weekly meetings, and reflects the opinions of the members present.

Beginning during the 2016 NFL preseason, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers gained attention for refusing to stand with his team during the national anthem. This sparked a movement to kneel during the anthem that has been continued by players across the NFL into 2017, drawing criticism from viewers and eventually from President Trump, who called for the release of all protesting athletes. Players and managers across the NFL responded in solidarity, with entire teams—from the Baltimore Ravens, to the Seattle Seahawks, to the New England Patriots—kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick and in response to Trump’s aggressive tweets. Some coaches and owners, such as Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, were hesitant to allow protests, but have reached compromises with their players, like choosing to kneel as a team before the anthem begins.

While this season has certainly brought more momentum to the protest that started last year, many have argued that the renewed movement is a dilution of Kaepernick’s original message. Namely, many have criticized the focal shift from recognition of police brutality against black Americans—and of American people of color in general—to a battle against Trump in favor of free speech. The participation of non-black players, kneeling alongside their black teammates, has also drawn criticism. The HPR’s Culture Board gathered this week to discuss these criticisms and to consider what allied players and managers might do to better express their solidarity.

We began our conversation with the differences between Kaepernick’s original protest and the new movement of 2017. As one writer mentioned, black protest largely defines patriotism for the black community in the United States; like Muhammad Ali or Rosa Park, originally met with criticism but lauded in hindsight, Kaepernick is expressing enough love and admiration for his country to put his own reputation on the line to improve it. Many agreed that this was what made Kaepernick’s original protest so effective: while later activists remain contracted players in the NFL, it is important to note that Kaepernick is the only one currently unsigned.

We believe that the new forms of protest co-opted the original movement in two ways: Trump undermined the police brutality messaging with his tweets and the white players, by responding to his provocation and not to the original messaging, solidified this narrative shift. This new protest was described by one member as a “low-hanging fruit” in that its redirection toward Trump makes it more palatable; while many fans didn’t buy into the call against police violence that Kaepernick brought attention to, anti-Trump sentiments are much more widely agreed upon. One member of the board even questioned whether “comfortable protest” could be considered protest at all.

While all members present agreed that these new protests have diluted Kaepernick’s message, there was a debate regarding the action players and managers seeking to show solidarity should have taken. Considering the enormity of the controversy, all teams have been put in a position of forced action; avoiding the subject by continuing to stand during the anthem is now just as political  as kneeling with the team. Taking issue to the equal position white participants took while kneeling next to black players, one member suggested that non-black players continue to participate but in a removed manner, whether that’s kneeling or standing behind the black participants to express solidarity. This would, in effect, place visual priority on the black protestors and make the black individual the face of the movement as Kaepernick initially was when he protested alone. Other members were concerned that this would still co-opt the movement to some extent, though, leading to the argument that players should publicly vocalize the terms of their participation, clarifying through statements the exact solidarity they wish to express. While we had various stances on how exactly these expressions of solidarity should be visualized, we agreed that the crux of this issue is representative of a larger issue in white allyship: how to show solidarity and support without distracting from the cause unintentionally.  

In this sense, the Kaepernick controversy can be seen more generally as a failure of white liberalism, and a warning of how the ally can hurt the movement. Throughout our discussion, one question was raised repeatedly: if protest is comfortable, is it protest at all? Members drew parallels between NFL kneeling and the January Women’s March following to Trump’s inauguration. In both, privileged participants embrace a so-called “white liberalism” to protest popular issues with little fear of retaliation. Among friends and in larger geographic bubbles, this action may actually be socially expedient.  To us, Kaepernick’s controversy is a “warning sign” of modern liberalism: in seeking to include greater audiences, a popular liberal agenda can ignore the greater concerns of the very people it seeks to help. For Kaepernick, still unsigned, the price of true protest is hard to deny.

This week’s CulturEd was written by staff writer Esteban Arellano. Members Hadley DeBello, Peyton Dunham, Mfundo Radebe, and Russell Reed contributed to the discussion.

Image Credit: Rick Barry/Flickr

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