By Lauren Kallenberg
In the midst of a polarizing Presidential election, politics have breached all aspects of American life, most recently creating a dichotomy within the once-unifying world of sports. The contamination of politics into the National Football League has left sports fans and political aficionados alike questioning exactly what contemporary Americanism is supposed to look like.
A tradition rooted in patriotism and support for US soldiers during the second World War, the national anthem plays at the start of sporting games to bring a sense of unity amongst the fans, however, this narrative has changed in recent weeks as the essence of patriotism is now under question.
San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick thrusted himself into the center of controversy in one simple, silent refusal to stand for the playing of the anthem. The quarterback explained that he chose to sit during the anthem as a means of showing his support for and solidarity with people of color who continue to face discrimination in the United States, particularly in the form of police brutality.
Initially, Kaepernick acted alone. He sat on the sidelines, silent and unnoticed in the 49er’s first two preseason games. This all changed by the game three as Kaepernick’s choice to sit during the anthem caught national attention. What started as a soft glow of controversy has sparked and spread like wildfire as athletes across all generations, levels of talent, and ethnicities have joined the movement.
In week one of the regular season, eleven NFL players joined the protest. Brandon Marshall, a linebacker for the Denver Broncos and former college teammate of Kaepernick, took a knee during the anthem. Later in the week, Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs and Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennett of the New England Patriots raised their fists as the anthem played, in solidarity with Kaepernick’s protests. Perhaps the biggest spectacle of the week, however, was when the entirety of the Seattle Seahawks team stood with interlocked arms as the song boomed through the stadium.
From here, the protests only continued to grow. Professional athletes nationwide joined the movement in unique ways: fist-raising, kneeling, and arm-locking were no rare sighting as the second week of the regular season progressed. By week 3, the protest had outgrown the NFL and began to spread onto the soccer field when US Women’s National Soccer Team player Megan Rapinoe gave a nod to Kaepernick as she knelt during the anthem.
It spread onto college campuses as three volleyball players from West Virginia Tech chose to take a knee. It even spread into high school sports programs as a football player at Brunswick High in Ohio kneeled in support after hearing a teammate use the “n-word”.
Backlash, of course, was unavoidable. Player’s jerseys were burned, death threats were received, and a separation emerged in the country regarding the notions of patriotism. The disparity between traditional acts of loyalty and contemporary acts of free-speech became shockingly apparent as the American people were left questioning whether, in a time of so many political divides, it is possible to stand for your country as a whole without disregarding your beliefs as an individual.
In a nation which prides itself on free speech, democracy, and equality, peacefully protesting for the promotion of civil rights is an inherently American act- a physical embodiment of the constitutionally mandated freedoms that we so proudly bear. Though the turmoil arising from the Kaepernick protests have created a sense of unease among the American people, no great social change has ever stemmed from comfort- and there are few comforts more detrimental than conformity.
In the midst of a political environment with an uncertain future, one thing can be said undoubtedly- the protests evoked by a silent stance are far from being quieted.