The NFL recently announced its new national anthem policy. Teams or individual players can now remain in the locker room during the performance. However, what the league offers in one hand, they take away with the other: personnel that choose to take the field during the anthem will be required to show “respect” or will otherwise be fined. While it’s unclear what particular displays qualify as disrespect (for example would lifting a fist, or kneeling in protestant prayer against abortion like Tim Tebow did for a few years count?), it is clear that kneeling or sitting would lead to a fine.
The NBA offers the better way by choosing solidarity with their players, which ironically challenges the NFL’s authoritarian logic that privileges profit over people and reminds us that dignity and the bottom line are not locked in a zero-sum game.The majority of NFL owners have struggled to adequately respond to the national anthem protests against police brutality and injustice in America. In 2016 Colin Kaepernick followed the advice of a retired Green Beret and NFL veteran to kneel rather than sit during the song, and many across the league quickly followed his lead. According to owners, these protests led to a decline in viewership of NFL games, and under pressure from the divisive remarks of the President and the league’s quickly falling bottom-line, the owners chose to act unilaterally without input from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).
By excluding the NFLPA from this decision, the owners are accepting the false narrative that the protests are against America and the military. These dismissive actions demonstrate that owners have shown little concern about the injustices and inequalities the players were attempting to highlight. Instead, their demand to end the protests seems to only come from a concern for their bottom-line profits. The problem with this approach, beyond the suppression of the rights outlined in the First Amendment, is that it makes explicit what has been implicit for some time — most NFL owners care more about maintaining power and wealth than the health, welfare, and safety of their players.
In contrast, the NBA has consistently supported the rights of players to protest, and made clear that, given current injustices, it is proper for athletes to use their platforms to speak out. Most recently, when Stephon Clark was shot to death by Sacramento police officers, protesters blocked the entrance to a Kings home game, forcing the doors to be closed prematurely; in response, owner Vivek Ranadive stood with players at half court and acknowledged the purpose of the protest and reinforced that the NBA will continue being a community platform used seriously and wisely. The Sacramento Kings even played a 30-second public service announcement during a timeout with the slogan “Accountability. We Are One.”
When Eric Garner was choked to death by police, players across the NBA wore shirts emblazoned with Garner’s last words, “I Can’t Breathe.” Commissioner Adam Silver preferred a different method of protest, but instead of chastising the players, he expressed support for them to voice their opinion on social issues. Notably no player was fined or suspended for their decision.
Like the NFL, the NBA does require players to stand for the national anthem, but significantly the decision was made in conjunction with the NBA Players Association. Additionally, because NBA players have guaranteed contracts, they have more freedom to speak about injustice without fear of reprisals from owners. The players in the NBA have significantly more power than players in the NFL, which may have led them to conclude that their only opportunity to make a statement against police brutality and injustice was during the national anthem, although the protests were never about the anthem.
While some fans have been unable to separate the anthem from the cause, many of the military’s servicemen and women have no trouble seeing the protests for what they are intended to be: a statement to draw the public’s attention to the systemic race-related injustices men, women, and veterans are enduring across America. A high-ranking Army Detachment Commander (he prefers his name not be used since he is an active soldier) told us the following during research for this article:
I feel as a veteran, we have given voice to an entity that was not designed to have a voice. This is why the military is known as the silent professionals. But our leaders have sold American patriotism in order to justify invading a sovereign nation and now they use it as a metric to measure your loyalty to America. Both instances were and are wrong.
When asked how it makes him feel realizing militaristic images are being used for recruitment marketing, he confessed,
I feel, as man who culturally identifies as a black man in America, my country loves me as long as I’m in uniform, but when I’m not in uniform my country has no problem reminding me that I am second class and should be grateful they allow me to stay … kinda like professional athletes. So we continue the tradition in America — the tradition of shaping history to fit the narrative that best suits those who benefit the most from it lies, even if defies the values this country says it is built on.
The NFL owners — like many with power — are using their wealth and status to steamroll those in a weaker position. This is the exact opposite of the example set by Jesus Christ and even Paul the Apostle. In Colossians, Paul writes about how Jesus did not consider equality with God to be grasped, but humbled Himself to a death on the cross. Paul, a Hebrew of Hebrews, did not use his position to dominate other Christians, but saw himself as a servant of the gospel.
Paul encouraged the church to consider “the better way” — love. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). NFL owners would do well to keep this “better way” in the foreground for situations such as these instead of insisting on their own way. In considering the way of love first, they have an opportunity to set an example of a better way to achieve unity for an increasingly divided America.
One might argue those protesting are insisting on their own way and are therefore themselves not acting in love. But the greater call to service and submission is always to the one with more social power. So considering the reason for the athletes’ protests, the limits of their platform, and the financial sacrifices, we can readily see that their actions are more love-motivated than self-seeking. Additionally, it is worth highlighting that it has been a tactic of the moderate who prefers peace to justice to complain about objections rather than engage the issue that requires such expostulations. Yet, even if one disagrees with their methods, the message should be one that the NFL owners rush to get behind. Rather than continuing to suppress the protests, imagine the change in our society if the owners used their power to end the particular forms of injustice the players are protesting.
It’s abundantly clear that the NFL owners cannot please the President, as has been recently proven by the White House response to the NFL policy. The Vice President tweeted #winning along with a story about the new policy. The President has subsequently tweeted that staying in the locker room is unacceptable; players should have to stand on the field with their hands over the hearts. On Monday, he disinvited the Philadelphia Eagles, 2017 Super Bowl Champions, from the White House over claims that they disrespected the military by not standing (despite that no Eagles players knelt during the anthem last season). Fox News tried backing these false claims by reporting and showing pictures of players kneeling in prayer well before the anthem to support the White House’s argument. They later apologized for the false report when players called out their inappropriate mishandling of the story.
Many Eagles had previously expressed that they would skip the White House visit this year to do to community service and perhaps to avoid a photo op with a man who had called them “sons of b****es.” In Tuesday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders reminded the press that 70 percent of Americans agreed with the President about the player’s protests. Rather than capitulating to those who continue to choose division for the sake of easy applause, the NFL owners should stand with their players for dignity and in unity.
The NBA offers the better way by choosing solidarity with their players, which ironically challenges the NFL’s authoritarian logic that privileges profit over people and reminds us that dignity and the bottom line are not locked in a zero-sum game. The NBA revenues are increasing as more fans are being drawn to the sport. This attraction correlates with the intentionality of the NBA to listen to fans’ stories, creating an experience for the athletes and spectators to intersect in a more purposeful and personal way. This is reflected in ESPN’s World Fame 100, where they rank the most famous 100 athletes in the world. Of the the top 40 most popular athletes in 2018, 8 were NBA players, all rated higher than the NFL’s singular appearance, Tom Brady, at number 38.
For the church, there is a lesson embedded within this cultural controversy that is worth considering. Like the NBA and the NFL, the Church is made up of many parts — some with more power and prominence than others. The majority of NFL ownership has chosen a path that is insistent on its own way. However, the American Church would do well to mimic the NBA, practicing empathy and humility, because it is what our savior Jesus Christ did in a more significant and eternal way. He set aside all that was owed to him for the benefit of the lowly and undeserving. As Christ-followers, those with more influence and wealth should not use those things to insist on their own way. Instead, they should use their resources for the building of the kingdom, where the last shall be first. For the love of Christ should compel us to join those fighting for justice.