Why Did Kneeling Become So Controversial?

kneeling, Tim Tebow, Eric Reid, Colin Kaepernick, National Football League
Kneeling in the NFL became controversial since 2016 because instead of being associated with prayer (like Tebowing), it became associated with the protest of oppression. Image of Tim Tebow by Ed Clemente Photography (CC BY-SA 3.0), from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick taken via screenshot (video).

We are still talking about kneeling. The last time I wrote about the topic of National Football League protests, it was September, but much has happened since and culture warriors have done all they could to keep the topic of kneeling in the NFL relevant. In this post, I want to talk about a new rule the NFL has approved regarding anthem protests, how the anthem protests began in the first place*, and what I think about it all.

What Happened in May 2018?

As many of you may know, on May 23, the NFL owners approved a new rule that mandates that every player and staff member on the field must stand for the national anthem while it’s being played/sung. However, players and staff members have the choice of being off the field during the anthem. Anyone who doesn’t stand on the field “and show respect for the flag and the anthem” (whatever that means) during the national anthem will be fined. Each of the 32 NFL teams may come up with their own anthem policies, but the league has the power to fine anyone who doesn’t comply with the new rules.

This decision was of course praised by Trump and other culture warriors, but it was heavily criticized by others, and rightfully so.

The NFL Players’ Association criticized the league because the players were not consulted on this decision.


Specific players, like the Eagles’ defensive end Chris Long, spoke out. Long not only said the rule change was misguided, but that it was forced patriotism and it was about the NFL’s bottom line.

We soon learned that not all owners took part in the vote. San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York told his players that he abstained from the vote.



New York Jets CEO Christopher Johnson said that he would pay any fines if any of the team’s players decided to protest anyway:

What Brought on This Rule Change?

For those who have been following the story surrounding NFL protests, the rule change was a result of Trump’s attacks on protesting athletes as well as select owners’ views on their own players.

In October 2017, there were owners’ meetings and a secret conference call. Those meetings were about player protests and the NFL commissioner’s contract. Details of the meetings were leaked to the press and select individuals either looked good or presented themselves as bigger clowns than we thought, depending on one’s perspective.

From my perspective:

  • New England Patriots’ owner Bob Kraft gained more respect because he was measured in his response. Before, he took his friend Donald Trump to task for stirring up more controversy, as I discussed in the last post in this series.
  • NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell looked good after the meeting because, as I heard it, the players gained more respect for him. Goodell spoke with an openness and earnestness that was rarely seen and he listened to what the players had to say. That made his contract extension easier.
  • Jerry Jones gave his detractors more ammunition. Not only had he started striking out at Goodell because of Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, but he decided to take a hardline position against the player protests. Jones even elicited “Papa” John Schnatter’s participation in this whole debate. Jones soon backed down after receiving a “Cease and Desist” letter from the NFL.
  • Bob McNair got some flack, even from his players, when he said something to the effect of, “We cannot allow the prisoners run the asylum.” McNair later admitted those were a poor choice of words.

What bothers me about owners like McNair (and the loudest spectators) are their deep-seated prejudices. I do not like the way they’re spinning the narrative because the kneeling started with an important message.

Timeline: How Did Kneeling in the NFL Begin?

The NFL anthem protest began with then-San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, early on during the 2016 preseason. Kap decided to sit down during the national anthem, but no one really noticed until Jennifer Lee Chan of Niners Nation (the SB Nation blog site for 49ers fans) shared a photo of Kap’s protest taken during the Niners’ third preseason game on August 26, 2016.

August 28, 2016

On August 28, 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick talked to the press about his protest and why it was important.






When Kap was asked about his protest, he said:

I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.

He added:

This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So, I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.

In response to that old, tired adage that Kaepernick was disrespecting the flag, the United States, or its military, he said:

I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening.

People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.

A Meeting with Nate Boyer

On August 30, 2016, Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret who played as a long snapper at the University of Texas (and briefly in the 2015 preseason for the Seattle Seahawks) posted an open letter to Colin Kaepernick. Boyer felt compelled to write the letter in part because he grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and he was a 49ers fan since he was a child. (He said he went as Joe Montana for Halloween for two years in a row.)

In the letter, Boyer expressed how he was conflicted about Kap’s anthem protest. Boyer was conflicted because he admired Kap, But Boyer thought it was wrong to sit and he was proud to stand for the national anthem. In the end, Boyer said he wanted to keep an open mind and he respected Kap’s right to protest.

Kaepernick later met with Boyer in San Diego, and the two discussed how Kap should go about his protest from that point onward. Kap was soon joined by teammate Eric Reid (a safety) in the protest.

This is what Kaepernick said when discussing his decision to kneel and the conversation he and Reid had with Boyer:

We were talking to Nate about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are. And as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee. Because there are issues that still need to be addressed and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country.

Boyer was the one who suggested that Kaepernick and Reid each take a knee when protesting because that is how military service members honor fallen members. That was a compromise; it was a way to honor civilians who have been harassed and/or killed by police officers while showing respect for the military.

Other Athletes Support the Protest

Throughout September 2016, numerous NFL players and Megan Rapinoe of the National Women’s Soccer League showed solidarity with Kaepernick by sitting, kneeling, or raising their fists during the national anthem. On September 20, running back Marshawn Lynch (who wasn’t with an NFL that season), also expressed support for the cause.





This is what Lynch said:

I’d rather see him take a knee then stand up, [Lynch stood up] put his hands up, and get murdered. [Lynch sat back down.] So, I mean, my take on it is shit’s got to start somewhere, and if that was the starting point — I just hope people open up their eyes to see there’s really a problem going on, and something needs to be done for it to stop. And I mean, if you’re really not racist, then you’re going to see what he’s done, what he’s doing, [not] as a threat to America, but just addressing a problem that we have.

After September 2016, most of the talk about the protest died down for the most part, but the press would periodically focus on players who decided to protest during the national anthem. However, there were always whispers about it, especially after Kap and Reid left the 49ers and found no suitors.

2017: The Protests Are Renewed

When the 2017 preseason rolled around, there were talks about whether players would protest during the national anthem, but it seemed like there would be far fewer protests if any. However, the subject of Kaepernick weighed on the minds of players, NFL fans, and other observers. It was clear that Kaepernick was being blackballed and some anonymous owners confirmed that is what was going on.

Kaepernick would eventually sue the owners for collusion, but two big events gave the protests a renewed purpose: the events in Charlottesville, Virginia and Trump’s decision to take aim at NFL players. The former is what caused then-Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett to protest and say that he would protest all season long. A week after Bennett’s protest, Cleveland Browns players decided to protest before one of their preseason games. While other protests were sparse, the protests on September 24 took on new meeting after Trump attacked the players.

October 8, 2017

Mike Pence went to his home stand a game between the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts. However, he decided to virtue signal by leaving the game after seeing 49ers players kneeling. Thus, he kept the issue going.


With this rule change, we have yet to see what the players will do. In any event, Trump’s involvement in this whole debate deserves a strong response from the players. He has added more fuel to the fire by saying that protesting players don’t deserve to be in the country.

Is the Rule Change Legal?

The First Amendment is certainly at the heart of this debate, but it is unclear if it’s being violated here. Another issue that I was recently made aware of is the conflict the owners’ decision had with existing labor law.

According to Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard Law School professor, the league could have violated the First Amendment and labor law with this rule change. If the league was pushed to make this decision because of threats from Trump, that would be a violation of free speech. Jerry Jones did say that the thought behind the new policy was initiated by Trump. Also, the new anthem policy is a change in the terms of employment and the owners made the change without consulting the players (who are protected by a union.

If the players fight this rule change, they might be successful. This move by the owners might also aid Kaepernick and Reid’s lawsuits against the league.

What Else Do I Think About All of This?

I recognize that private organizations have a right to mandate certain behaviors from their employees, but those organizations should follow the law when doing so. For instance, it is understandable if a business owner fired an employee who was openly disrespectful to the leadership or if the employee engaged in activities during work that harmed the business. In the NFL’s case, the protests were not an attack on the owners nor did the protests get in the way of the players playing because they took place before the game.

The NFL also should have chosen the option that allows them to receive the best public relations and allow them to control the narrative. However, the way the NFL has handled the anthem protests is a disgrace because it violates all of these principles.

What the Owners Should Have Done

The easiest and most prudent path for the owners to take would be for them to mandate that the networks (over which they have tremendous sway) to keep their cameras off the protesting players. That would have killed much of the talk around the protests and it would have forced the players to prove themselves by promoting their causes on their own time. If the players didn’t have the fast attention from game cameras, those who were serious about fighting police corruption and abuse would have to find creative ways to reach out to other Americans and gain attention for the cause.

Why the Hardliners Are Destroying Their Own Case

Now, if I had written this post months ago, I would have said that kneeling in the NFL had lost all meaning. However, this decision by the NFL and Trump’s insistence on attacking athletes for their protests, have renewed the importance of those protests. The protests would have ended on their own once it was clear that the message was received and/or the protests lost their effectiveness, but the negative reactions to kneeling have done the opposite.

The owners and Trump may or may not be in violation of the First Amendment, but in trying to suppress athlete expression, they have shown their utter lack of respect for the concept of free speech. It is well known that Trump doesn’t really care for free speech or the press when that speech or press is used against him. Likewise, the NFL owners don’t appreciate being criticized, especially by the players.

Trump and the owners have also shown their true colors as if we needed more proof of their disposition. By making this an issue about “disrespecting the flag” or “disrespecting the troops,” those opposed to the protests have fallen back on dog whistles and they are hiding behind the military and flag to disguise their own prejudices.

Racism is not an easy topic to address, but those who want to obfuscate from the subject are either in denial or afraid of being exposed. Either way, they are incredibly selfish and have a myopic view of society. It is clear that Trump and the owners who are against the anthem protests think very little of the (black) players or people in general. Thus, I think very little of those plutocrats and their defenders.

Another Reason Why the Hardliners Are Wrong

To make matters worse, Trump and the NFL owners want to force patriotism. While, again, the owners do have a right to mandate certain behaviors from their players, they need to be careful and steer away from banning free expression. Forced patriotism does not foster a love for a country. It’s quite the opposite, as it will foster resentment and cynicism.

An inconvenient truth in all this is that players only started standing for the national anthem after 2009 — and we didn’t even see the national anthem outside of Super Bowl games until 2001, after the 9/11 attacks. This decade, select NFL teams were paid by the U.S. Department of Defense to encourage teams to honor the military. Overall, the DOD paid over $150 million to at least six sports leagues for recruitment, sponsorships, and patriotic displays.

Sure, there had long been an association between American sports and the military. For one thing, as the Army and Navy have football teams that played against NCAA teams; some of their players, like Roger Staubach (a former Navy Midshipman), went on to play in the NFL. Blue Angels have been flying over NFL stadiums before games for years. However, the deal teams signed changed the scope of that relationship and it makes it look like this is all about the NFL’s greed and false patriotism.

Even worse is how the NFL treats other pressing issues among players, like concussions. For years, the NFL tried to sweep the issue under the rug and rarely mentions it today. Also, on a recent episode of Real Sports, it was revealed that players who won a $750 million concussion settlement received none of the money. This is a grave injustice, but many of the hardliners don’t want to talk about this.

Next Time …

The next post in this series will deal with how ESPN and the sports media, in general, have handled politics over the years. Should sports media touch politics at all or is part of it unavoidable?

* H/T to numerous writers at SB Nation, for their coverage of the NFL protests and for pointing me to the information about the military’s deal with NFL teams.


Here are some other posts in this series:


Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.