When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem of a preseason NFL game just over a year ago, he did so at the end of a hostile summer that claimed the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two unarmed black men who were gunned down by law enforcement. The 49ers quarterback was mindful of a singularly American truth: the distance between life and death for black people is shorter, and more precarious, than for most.
As the 2016–17 season pushed forward, the loss continued, its pace relentless: Anthony Ford, Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott. All unarmed and shot by police. A handful of players joined Kaepernick in silent protest. Still, the league ignored the roar of the world. Its willful evasion was almost a matter of policy: For decades the NFL has tried to keep politics out of the game and protect the purity of its brand, which also meant ignoring the realities of CTE, painkiller addiction, and domestic abuse in the league.
But the pull of history is unavoidable. On Sunday, galvanized by President Trump’s recent remarks in which he exhorted team owners to “fire” any “son of a bitch” who refused to stand for the national anthem, hundreds of players took a cue from Kaepernick and kneeled in harmonious dissent. Last night, on Monday Night Football, Dallas Cowboys players and coaching staff locked arms while their opponents were announced. On the surface, the demonstrations were moving and powerful. Yet, it was hard to divine anyone’s motivations. Had the parade of black death finally become too heavy a load for players and team owners to cast aside, or were they simply pushing back against Trump’s remarks?
Had the parade of black death finally become too heavy a load for players and team owners to cast aside, or were they simply pushing back against Trump’s remarks?
As president, Trump has done his very best to preserve the ways of white supremacy. In a mere nine months, he has attempted to strip health care from millions of people, sympathized with white nationalists, and attacked US citizens who simply exercised their right of free speech. His continued defense of his own invective—doubling down on Twitter, then doubling down again—suggests that he sees kneeling during the anthem as unpatriotic. But patriotism in America is a complicated business. It requires one to answer these questions: Just who is this country for? And how did you arrive at such a conclusion?
The answers prove more expansive than…