National anthem protests are about racism, not patriotism

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/
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In an effort to gain some brownie points with veterans and out of anger from a rejected invitation to the White House by Golden State Warriors basketball player Stephen Curry, President Donald Trump tweeted calling for the firing of players who protest during the anthem at National Football League (NFL) games. In response, the Steelers, along with other teams, did not take the field during the anthem, resulting in angry fans who saw the act as disrespectful to the military. However, these protests across the NFL aren’t about disrespecting the American flag and our military, they’re about racism and police brutality.

While Steelers president Art Rooney issued a statement claiming that Steelers did not want to say anything political by not standing for the anthem, the team certainly said something. Football fans cannot expect the NFL to stay out of political issues when the President of the United States calls for the firing of certain players. The Steelers did not take the field to respect the rights of their fellow teammates, not to disrespect the military.

The Steelers claiming that they did not take the field during the anthem to avoid making a statement is the just organization trying to appease angry fans. As someone who has family who served in the military, I was raised being taught that the flag is symbolic of the sacrifices made for this country. I cannot imagine a time where I would kneel during the anthem. However, I acknowledge that symbols, like the American flag, can be open to more than one interpretation. For me, America has treated me well. But, this is not the case for a great amount of American citizens who are still overcoming racial barriers. I have never taken offense to anyone kneeling during the anthem, and I never will. For them, America has not been well. For them, the flag stands for institutionalized racism and the obstacles they face for something as arbitrary as the color of their skin. Colin Kaepernick, the player who began the movement last year, even decided to take a knee instead of sitting after a conversation with a veteran last year. There is nothing more these players could have done to make it clear that kneeling is a way for them to bring light to issues and generate a discussion, not show disrespect for the military.

Protests during the anthem are not violent, and peaceful protests should be encouraged in a democracy. No one is harmed when someone kneels during the anthem. NFL players have a large following, and this following can be used as a platform to bring social justice issues to light. While Kaepernick has essentially been blackballed from the NFL, his protest from last year has been a success. It is the next season, and not only has the conversation continued, but other players have also joined them movement. If we fail to legitimize nonviolent protests, we only leave violent protests as an answer to injustice.

Steelers fans are so upset about the protests that they are burning jerseys and cancelling season tickets, but no one had such a violent, negative reaction when Ben Roethlisberger allegedly raped two women. In fact, he still remains the team’s quarterback, and Steeler fans had no issue buying tickets to support him or the long list of other men accused for sexual and/or domestic assault. Steelers fans are just hiding behind the veil of “supporting the military” to mask their true intention of silencing activists who want to bring an end to racial injustice.

In order to bring change and end racism, we need activists in the NFL to generate these conversations, even if they make us uncomfortable. Steelers fans who wish they could watch a game without “politics” need to acknowledge the privilege they have that racial issues are something they can turn on and off, because people who experience racism do not get that option: it’s something they have to deal with from the day they are born until the day they die.