Colin Kaepernick’s lone action condemning police brutality against Black people has multiplied into the most widespread mass protest against racism in U.S. sports history.
Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, has refused to stand for the game day national anthem since Aug. 10. Since then, 59 National Football League players from 13 teams have knelt, lifted a fist or sat down during the anthem. On three teams, all the players, of all nationalities, have either linked arms or held hands to show unity.
By Oct. 7, resistance had sprung up swiftly in other sports and related activities, including soccer, volleyball, swimming, cheerleading and band performances. Fourteen Women’s National Basketball Association players from three teams protested during their playoffs.
Eight men’s National Basketball Association teams, including the world famous Los Angeles Lakers, locked arms in protest. Lakers center Tarik Black said, “There needs to be equality.”
Anthem protests have occurred in at least 44 high schools, 21 colleges and two youth leagues in 34 states in the U.S. and three nations abroad.
According to a Guardian database, U.S. police have killed 156 people since Kaepernick’s protest began. Between 20 to 25 percent of these were Black, a number far exceeding the proportion of Black people in the U.S. population.
Racist reaction to the protests has been horrific, so the bravery of those continuing to act must be acknowledged. On Oct. 1, at a game against the University of North Carolina, 19 East Carolina University band members knelt as the national anthem was played. They were booed, spat on and had bottles thrown at them. The school threatened to rescind their scholarships, and a faculty member said she’d bring her gun to school to exercise her “constitutional rights.”
The ECU student government came to the band members’ support. A hundred students, Black and white, gathered for the Black Student Union’s die-in, complete with Black Power salutes, at the center of campus.
Right-wingers are jeering, “Keep politics out of sports.” But many athletes, coaches and even referees have given forceful accounts of being subjected to racist profiling, having guns pulled on them by cops, or losing family and friends to cop killings. Guard DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors basketball team has related how a close friend was killed by police recently — shot 17 times.
Big money interests are trying to enforce allegiance to status quo racist “America” as a “condition of employment” on students earning scholarship money through athletic or band performance or on more mature athletes who are formally workers for their “owners.”
Kieran Shanahan, vice chair of ECU trustees, who is leading athletic boosters in a $55 million fund drive, said the band members’ protest was as unacceptable as a student making a political statement in a classroom. Not grasping the concept of academic freedom any better than constitutional freedom of speech, Shanahan also disclosed his bedrock belief that working students were in an “employ at will” status to the university’s big business trustees.
Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin recently revealed that at least one owner of an NFL team has strictly forbidden players on “his” team to protest. In an interview with HBO’s “Any Given Wednesday,” Baldwin said the owner told players, “You’re going to stand on the line with your hand on your heart and you’re going to sing the national anthem because this is my stage.” There is no Black owner of an NFL team.
Corporate media blame the protests for an almost 20 percent decline in NFL viewing ratings this season. Savvy insiders are saying the decline is due to the stranglehold that NFL business heads exert over all aspects of the sport to try to maximize profits.
The widespread protests break with the myth that U.S. “democracy” offers “equal rights for all.” To prop up fading working-class allegiance to dead-end capitalism in the U.S., the Department of Defense has paid millions for pregame and halftime propaganda at sports events. DOD gave money for huge flags and military honor guards, marching bands and flyovers to 18 NFL teams, eight NBA teams and six NHL teams. The Buffalo Bills received $650,000, while their coach Rex Ryan spouts support for racist, woman-hating Donald Trump.
New York Knicks center Joakim Noah highlighted the connection between U.S. racism and U.S. imperialism in his recent decision not to attend a team dinner at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy, because of his anti-war stance. Noah is on record as supporting Kaepernick’s anti-racist resistance. (New York Times, Sept. 30)
Meanwhile, the protests roll on. As first-ranked University of Alabama played Kentucky on Oct. 1, about 30 students stuck to their seats in opposition as the anthem played. Alabama has won four of the last seven national college football championships, and protesters faced down over 100,000 fanatic fans in Denny Stadium. In an interview with Crimson White, the UA student newspaper, junior Dwyer Freeman said the action was in solidarity with those “harmed under the flag that’s supposed to represent them.”