1. Update
  2. Criminal Justice

Remember What NFL Players Are Protesting

By Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred, October 10, 2017


Even if you’re not much of a sports fan, you’ve probably heard about one of the biggest news stories of the year in the sports world: the protests by athletes, especially NFL players, who take a knee during the National Anthem to call attention to police brutality against people of color and to demand change.

Though these protests have been happening since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee more than a year ago, they’re getting more attention now than ever, especially as new voices weigh in from all directions. None have been louder than the president, who lambasted the protesters at a campaign rally in Alabama and has continued his critiques in the intervening weeks. Over the weekend, Vice President Mike Pence brought the protests back to the top of the news when left an Indianapolis Colts game after players kneeled during the National Anthem.

In one sense, all of the extra attention foisted upon these protests is a good thing. After all, the point of kneeling during the national anthem is to call attention to police brutality, and all the new media attention gives protesters a larger platform to have their voices heard. However, with the increased attention have come new distractions that sometimes conceal the protest’s goal of calling out white supremacy and systemic racism in our justice system.

Critics raise red herring objections—claiming that the protesters disrespect the flag or the troops by kneeling during the Anthem when one has nothing to do with the other. Meanwhile, new players, coaches, and even NFL team owners have participated in demonstrations around the National Anthem, but these are often shows of solidarity with players who are being attacked by the president, rather than genuine displays against police brutality. In effect, they have served to dilute the attention cast on racist policing rather than amplify the calls for reform. And the media sticks to a drama-filled storyline that pits the president against players, rather than covering the cause for which the players are advocating.

For my fellow white people, here’s my job and yours: listen. Listen to the players who put their careers and public image on the line to speak out for racial justice. Listen to the activists and political leaders who are demanding change on the streets and in the halls of power. Listen to the people of color who are sharing their lived experience and asking for our nation to do right. Listen from your heart straight to theirs, and cut out all the noise. Then, stand up for their civil liberty to speak out and amplify their calls for justice. Ask Congress to listen, too.

Beyond the red herrings and the distractions, beyond the chattering voices and media frenzy, this protest is about the scourge of racist police violence, the dire need for comprehensive criminal justice reform, and, now, the essential civil liberties that enshrine each of our right to demand that our country does better. This Sunday, when you see players take a knee, remember that that’s why they’re kneeling, and do what you can to support them. One way to start is by asking Congress to support bipartisan criminal justice reform.

Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred

  • Program Assistant, Communications

Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred assists the Communications team with a particular focus on digital advocacy. His primary responsibility is to help write and edit FCNL’s various materials, including emails, website content, publications, and social media posts.