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BLM national anthem protests protect rights

Credit: Anna Boyle/ Credit: Anna Boyle/
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Football games are an unlikely battleground for racial debate. However, when Colin Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, refused to stand for the national anthem before a game to protest police violence in America, it ignited fresh controversy to the already nationwide dispute.

The simple act of kneeling or sitting while teammates and audience members pledged themselves to their country was intended, according to Kaepernick, to bring attention to race issues in the U.S.

However, it has inspired sharply contrasting perspectives of the true weight and meaning of the action. One is that of a selfish, pampered professional athlete pushing a personal agenda at the expense of his spectators.

There were likely many veterans and government employees in the audience who would have been insulted by this apparent rejection of their service and sacrifice, in addition to any ordinary, patriotic American fans.

Yet there is another, more nuanced, perception — that of an American exemplifying the very ideals that the national anthem is supposed to represent. Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest doesn’t mean that he rejects American values, but rather that he believes these values to have been abused by this nation. It is an attempt to remind his audience — which has now grown from a stadium to the entire nation — of the meaning of the song they are singing. Not only freedom of expression, but of equality, specifically racial equality.

In an interview after one of the games, Kaepernick told NFL Media, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Last week, three Miami Dolphin players replicated his actions, kneeling together during the Star-Spangled Banner before a game. In response, a police union for Broward County sheriff’s office wanted to stop their protection of Dolphins players, challenging their constitutional rights as NFL players.

“I respect their right to have freedom of speech,” Jeff Bell, president of the union, told the Miami Herald. “However, in certain organizations and certain jobs you give up that right of your freedom of speech [temporarily] while you serve that job or while you play in an NFL game.”
Ironically, he’s completely correct, but not with regard to football players — it applies, rather, to himself. The NFL is not a government organization, so their employees are not considered servants of the people, and thus may retain their constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech.

Police officers, however, do lose a certain degree of liberty when they put on their uniform. As law enforcement, they represent the authority of the government, and therefore must sacrifice personal opinions in favor of their duty.

These few police union members, as well as any other critics who may challenge these players’ rights to protest in this manner, seem to be laboring under the delusion that the Star-Spangled Banner represents only a flawless nation of unquestioning loyalty and superficially eloquent professions of freedom.

It does not. The anthem represents a diverse and imperfect nation, full of division and controversy, because the only way to avoid conflict in such a diverse nation is to force silence.

These constitutional rights were created explicitly to protect us from any such compulsion. Kaepernick decided to break the forced silence that he believed to surround this controversy of police violence, and so he kneeled, protected by the very music echoing around him.