A friend posted a question about the NFL protests on Facebook and I decided to tell the story of my evolving position. I’ve written about this before in my post on Melissa Schlag, but this is less about the players and more about my experience with the story.
First Response: Emotions and Common Narrative
My initial hot take of the situation was, “you can do it, free speech and all, but you oughtn’t, see, because the flag symbolizes the more perfect union we’re all striving for, and not any particular individual/group in power at any level.” I formulated that opinion without learning anything about Kaep’s purpose or the data that informed it. If I recall, most of the media stories were about the outcry to the protest rather than the conditions being protested. Those stories would mention that they’re protesting Police Brutality without going into it.
The outcry really is the story because of how sacred we hold the ritual of standing and placing hands over hearts during the anthem at sporting events. Most adult Americans have formative experiences of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, another custom that is officially not required but unofficially mandatory. Cold War era propaganda has worked very well on these generations: people who claim they wouldn’t hurt a fly stand up and cheer at viral vids of children attacking other children for sitting during the Pledge, or adult men assaulting people for disrespecting the flag. To be honest, I couldn’t resist having a little emotional reaction when I first heard about people not standing during the anthem.
My understanding of Police Brutality or systemic racism at the time was kind of both-sidesist; sure there were a few bad apples in law enforcement, but there were plenty of black criminals that were making destructive choices, and what could you do? Cops have to protect themselves, right? Also, there were a number of black people simply playing the victim card while not examining the behavior in their own community. This understanding was shaped by consuming mass media and a few rational skeptic/enlightened centrist voices on YouTube. In short, it was very surface, very low effort, and it also let many off the hook. Still, I supported the idea of doing a protest, misguided though I felt it was.
After forming my initial opinion, I defended their right to protest without seeking out new information. To those who wanted to make standing mandatory, I said, “is it patriotism if it’s forced?” and I congratulated myself for protecting free speech.
Eventually, I learned more about things like redlining, mass incarceration, even eugenics programs that took place in the US as late as the 1970s. I started seeing that the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s, while significant, were not total. The documentary 13th on Netflix gives a good introduction to many of these things, particularly mass incarceration. Only after starting to understand that systemic racism is a thing did I go back to look up Kaep’s statements about the protests and his contributions off the field, which are numerous. My opinion of the protests was drastically changed from this new information.
Conclusion and Hope
For me, it was extremely roundabout. To a neutral observer, the protests can be seen as another manifestation of the “conversation about race” we’ve been clumsily trying to have forever. For those who are not super into the social/political/cultural conversation and who are super into NFL football, this might be the push that starts them learning about these things.
The way it went for me, and the way I hope it goes for others, is as follows:
- Initial, emotion driven reaction
- Information gathering
- More informed opinion
- Talk to others, repeat 2 & 3 as needed
It’s frustrating that I’ve moved past #1 while many others are stuck there, seemingly permanently. I understand that people have that emotional reaction, I had an emotional reaction as well. Compare this to some other issue. The emotional take is a starting point. It’s your gut, your heart, the quick and dirty assessment that you can offer with only your pre-existing set of experiences and knowledge. Unless you can just magic up a nuanced, complex take on a subject, you probably need to get some new information before you form a concrete opinion.
On the subject of the NFL protests, I think that if people take a detailed look at history, they will see that systemic racism is real and massively impactful to people of color. NFL players are using their place in the public eye to draw attention to these problems, risking popularity and perhaps even their extremely lucrative careers to do so.