An Insider's Account of the NFL Players' Take-a-Knee Movement

I started my professional career in the communications department of the National Football League. It was a dream job right out of college. I grew up a passionate New York Giants fan, but more importantly, I recognized the invaluable experience I’d gain working for an organization that managed to draw more than 100 million viewers to the Super Bowl each year. 

This is not a novel observation, but the NFL is more than a sports organization. Football is — sorry baseball — America’s pastime, and the league’s steps and missteps on player discipline, health and safety, and executive compensation have become part of the national conversation. Knowing this, leadership has clear instructions: Focus on the game; deflect from a scandal; protect the shield.

At the end of the day, it’s a business. Pontificate all you want about the selective outrage of the fanbase — denounce signing a domestic violence abuser unless he boosts that defensive line — but that fanbase buys tickets, merchandise, and expensive cable packages to justify multi-year broadcast deals.

Long ago, the NFL made a decision to capitalize on its ostensible patriotism. It helped solidify the association between pregame pageantry — and in turn the national anthem — and military appreciation. It partners with military nonprofit organizations that honorably support active-duty service members, veterans, and their families.

So on the fateful day Colin Kaepernick decided to sit — and later kneel at the advice of former Green Beret Nate Boyer — during the anthem to protest police brutality, it served as a referendum on the league’s “patriotism” and helped divide those united by fandom according to racial, economic, and generational lines.

I knew compartmentalizing protecting the shield and my personal beliefs was going to be challenging. The players were never protesting the military, but rather racial injustice — police brutality, mass incarceration, and systemic racism. I’ve heard this from them directly. They were pointed and thoughtful about their motives.

One player who demonstrated had friends and family who served in the military. He had honest discussions with them about using his platform to bring attention to issues bigger than the game and had nothing but respect for the troops. Another player did not protest, but he expressed solidarity with players who did because he knew racism was real, and he supported making people think about it, not avoid it. The league knew as much. But they had a bottom line to deal with.

I listened to our military nonprofit partners’ concerns about the message the protests send to service members with care. Brave men and women fight and die to protect the ideals of this country. I also listened to the players, who are indefatigably ready to help each “Community Tuesday,” their in-season off-day dedicated to community service. They run foundations. They fund literacy programs. They do what they can to help this country live up to its ideals.

I watched as fans, owners, and Twitter-users misidentified the purpose of the protests, and even worse, vacillated on the merits of such protests against racial injustice. These dog-whistles, selective patriotism, and tired tropes of the ungrateful Black man are just another reminder of what happens when Black men step out of line.

The president has called on NFL incomes as an explanation for players’ misplaced concerns regarding systemic racism. But a Black player who signs an NFL contract isn’t suddenly not Black.

Donald Trump's Tweet: If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect....

Black people, as we’ve witnessed in horrific detail this year, are reported to the police for barbequing, swimming, napping, and moving into an apartment. Black students are suspended and expelled from school three times more often than white students are. Nearly 1,000 people were shot and killed by police in 2017, a disproportionate amount of whom were Black.

The list goes on.

My time at the NFL was marked by a stark reminder that many Americans refuse to confront the history and ubiquity of racism in this country. Yet despite all the dog whistles and outright racism, particularly from the White House, the players carry on. They know they’re protesting for justice and have the platform to get the message out.

They don’t deserve condemnation. They deserve praise.

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Anonymous

If anyone wants to protest then do it, but never during our National Anthem. Do they players not understand that they are lowering the expectations Of all Americans that look up to them.

SgrA*

"The players were never protesting the military, but rather racial injustice — police brutality, mass incarceration, and systemic racism."

This has been so apparent since it started, and ran parallel with the importance of the "Black Lives Matter," in that as I recall, before Kaepernick started the kneeling campaign, there were some football players who ran the line at the beginning of the game with their 'hands up.' I wonder how the NFL feels about the Nike logo on NFL players' jerseys? Plus, I am totally surprised that military personnel don't support it wholeheartedly, they know even in the ranks the need for trust, equality and teamwork.

Anonymous

Fuck Racist White Trash Dotard Trump

Anonymous

Hypocritical article, why dont theses same players do something about the black on black murders and crimes committed in cities like Chicago? Why do they only protest during National anthem? They just had an off season didn't notice any of these players especially Kap, doing anything to make things better. HYPOCRITES.

Carl Edwards

I think one of the many things that has been lost in the politicization of the protest is that kneeling is respectful. Do people not kneel when they ask someone's hand in marriage? Do some religious practices require kneeling before God? How about kneeling before the Monarch? These are just a few examples. I am sure there are many others.

Anonymous

True. But also, if you've ever played football, you'd recognize the term "take a knee," at a call for players to be observant to the person who call for it. Even in the locker room, just before exiting to play the game, we'd take a knee in prayer. It's empathetic to organizational behavior, to take a knee and be faithful.

Dak

The opinion expressed is slanted very far left. I am a veteran. I believe in people's rights to protest, however; I find kneeling for OUR anthem to be disrespectful. If players protested by sitting out a snap or set of downs or a quarter , that would be an effective protest . It would be a protest where personal sacrifice would be evident just like the personal sacrifice of countless veterans. Veterans who believed in an ideal greater than themselves. Freedom. The very freedom afforded the protesters. I do not disagree with their cause only their form of protest. ONE nation under God.

Dr. Timothy Leary

Football players are just a bunch of arrogant, dumb, overpaid jerks. If they really wanted to show their support of America they would all join the military, but then they could not be prima donnas.

AnonymouS

You mean like Tillman, who died in Afghanistan from friendly fire?

SomeDudeNamedMike

No matter where you stand on this issue, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Ana Blinder just taught us about the word “indefatigably”!

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