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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Kaepernick’s kneeling: The anthem is not reserved exclusively for the military

What began as a rightful protest has been obscured by slander in the name of patriotism

Flags and the people waving them tend to make the news. The American one bleeds red, white and blue, but underneath it lies a wasteland of controversies that never quite seem to dissipate. Of course, this is nothing new. Amid all the normal flag-waving and chauvinism of the patriotic masses is an issue that has riled up the nation’s militarism like little else can.

I am — of course — talking about the NFL national anthem protests. Never has the ostensibly apolitical platform of sports been such a mecca for politically-charged dissent, unless we invoke the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos performing a black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Still, the ubiquity of the NFL players’ actions move this particular episode of anthem protests into a new realm, separated from Smith and Carlos’ gloved fists by the nature of its backlash.

Browsing social media comment threads and news interviews with angry NFL fans, it becomes quite clear why so many people take offense to what Kaepernick started last year — to them, kneeling during the national anthem is supremely disrespectful to the military.

But why does the American flag only represent the military in this context? Why does kneeling warrant such a strong reaction in defense of the military’s preservation of “freedom”? Why does the typical objector to Kaepernick & Co.’s protesting feel offended on behalf of the military, and not for themselves?

The American flag does not solely represent the military. The national anthem is not reserved exclusively for military grandstanding. What world do we live in — or even want to live in — when American soldiers are fetishized for the purpose of deciding who’s a proper patriot and who isn’t? Our soldiers did not die on the battlefield so that those offended by a legitimate and (what should be) uncontroversial protest could cry “foul” and label people of good faith and true patriotism “unpatriotic.”

Besides, the act of kneeling itself seems a surprising locus for targeted animosity. Little Leaguers often kneel when a fellow player is hurt, as do their counterparts in collegiate and professional leagues. Ever knelt in prayer? It’s usually a sign of respect toward whatever entity is being prayed to. Tim Tebow famously knelt in prayer during his limited NFL career — the once-marginally-popular term “tebowing” was derived from these acts of Christian deference.

Even Colin Kaepernick genuinely thought kneeling was the proper way to honor the flag while bringing attention to salient issues. His conversations with Nate Boyer, a retired NFL player and former Green Beret, led him to adopt kneeling as a gesture of respect, not scorn. Boyer cited how American soldiers will take a knee to honor a fallen comrade and suggested that Kaepernick do the same to demonstrate at least some measure of reverence toward the anthem to avoid offense.

Their dialogue — a rare case of ideologically-differing adults reaching some form of consensus — was supposed to bridge the gap between the military world and the world Kaepernick was trying to bring to the forefront of conversation. Instead, self-described patriots lost their marbles, and the issue of racial injustice has been bypassed altogether.

What began as a simple protest that had no intention of disrespecting anything or anybody (indeed, steps were taken to defend against this very accusation) has since mushroomed into heated political trench warfare. President Trump’s epithet targeting Kaepernick and other players who have protested, per usual, only made the ideological chasm wider.

It’s disappointing. Kaepernick’s original intention has been obscured by a dubious narrative sourcing the military as the ultimate victim of simple acts of kneeling. The news has been infested by calls for boycotting games and NFL fans throwing adult temper-tantrums — perhaps copying our president and vice president.

But hey, don’t forget that football season has arrived. Time to toss the pigskin and start tailgating. Bring out the tattered jersey and munch on chicken wings, the whole nine yards. Just remember that winter is coming. And the snowflakes are all too real.


Written by: Nick Irvin — ntirvin@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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