By Sharon McElhone
San Jose, CA, June 6, 2018.- Starting in February of 1960, droves of American men and women failed to support the Woolworth’s lunch counter six-month-long protest. The hundreds of students, civil rights organizations, churches, and members of the community who participated in sitting for equality were not met with a warm embrace from those who had grown accustomed to segregation. The initial protest began with four African American students requesting service at the whites-only lunch counter. Those who failed to agree with the sit-in, at best, saw protesters as a disruption to the everyday enjoyment of ordering a meal and eating it at a counter where only white customers ate. At worst, the protesters showed a flagrant disrespect for our country’s rules as they stood, and they also teased at the idea that America had shortcomings, which makes some uncomfortable. Today, most Americans admit that those peaceful demonstrations led to the desegregation of the Woolworth’s lunch counter and helped in the fight for equality.
Football players, who kneel in protest of violence against African Americans, haven’t received a warm embrace either. A wild debate ensues, as it did during the Woolworth’s sit-ins. At best, for those against the protest, the political act of kneeling has disrupted the personal enjoyment of watching a sporting event. At worst, it is an inexcusable act of disrespect against the flag and puts at risk everything we stand for as Americans. Furthermore, it treads on the unspoken rule we have of separating politics and sports in this country. It is a common held belief that politics has no business in sports.
Still, there is nothing more political than blackballing athletes and preventing them from achieving their dreams because they have chosen a form of passive resistance that we don’t like. Not only is it political to blackball an athlete because we don’t agree with the way he or she protests, it is a punishment meant to send a message to other career athletes who may want to use their platform to bring attention to injustice by way of peaceful assembly.
Colin Kaepernick lost his job as a football player after he began to protest police brutality and racial injustice, and he has filled a law suit claiming NFL owners, players, and league executives colluded to make sure that no team signed him. There are politics at play deciding the fate of this young athlete and for those who believe that politics have no place in the sports world, politics are the reason Colin Kaepernick is not playing football. We, as Americans, run the risk of enabling one sided politics today that leave athletes like Colin Kaepernick, who exercise their first amendment rights, more vulnerable to losing their livelihoods. President Trump weighed in and his tweets have had an enormous impact on how athletes who kneel are being treated by the NFL. Dolphins owner, Stephen Ross, said in a deposition “I was totally supportive of (the players) until Trump made his statement.” There are other team owners, according to reports, who have admitted that the President has influenced their position on kneeling. Colin Kaepernick’s career has been compromised. He is being made a martyr and an example. Even Pro Football Hall of Famer Tim Brown was quoted early on in the debate over kneeling as saying that Kaepernick needed to make up his mind of whether he is truly an activist or a football player. Only, many who have turned to activism as a means to create social change come from other vocations. The activists who participated in the 1960’s Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins were students before they were activists. Martin Luther King was a preacher; Gloria Steinem worked for New York magazine as a journalist; Pete Seeger was an American folk singer; Mohammed Ali boxed. There should be no unspoken requirement for football players to choose between the sport they love to play and speaking out on issues facing this nation.
What compulsion makes us retaliate against those we don’t agree with after they exercise their right to freedom of expression—one of the five basic freedoms of the first amendment—is perhaps the most critical question to answer at this time, not whether or not we should make it mandatory for football players to stand for the anthem. We all agree that quadriplegics are not required to stand for the anthem—neither is the baby swaddled in a blanket, nor the runaway toddler. These people are not threatened with fines or being blackballed for not standing, and yet football players are made to feel as if not standing is a crime. There is no decree in our constitution that says we must stand for the anthem. It is not as if football players are turning their back on the flag.
But we don’t all agree. My father’s reaction was that of disapproval when I came out in support of the athletes who were kneeling in protest. He believed that it was disrespectful to the flag and to the soldiers who died fighting for our freedoms. His opinion on the issue surprised me, for he was the kind of guy that hated injustice of any kind. Over the years he rented out rooms, his tenants were from every race and socioeconomic background. Still, he did not agree with the kneeling. To me, football players looked like men waiting to be knighted when they took a knee and let the anthem bellow out over their heads.
That is the beauty of this country—at its best. We have the right to disagree without fear of losing our jobs or our lives. Or at least that is what this country promises its citizens. Now it needs to deliver. During the disagreement with my father, I didn’t penalize him for having beliefs that ran contrary to mine. We didn’t scream, nor did he punish me like a child. I didn’t collude with my brother to ignore him. That evening, we ate dinner at a diner and moved on to other serious topics like the state of healthcare and lack of affordable childcare. I continued to bring him his medicine until his death. He continued to support me as a writer, realtor, and mother, who believes strongly in certain things like all Americans do. For, to the end, we were a team that recognized we can only be as good as how we decide to handle our differences.