During the preseason games in 2016, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, quietly remained seated during The Star Spangled Banner. After the anthem, thousands of fans chanted, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” in indignation as Kaepernick trotted onto the field. Even during gameplay, fans continued to boo him as he led the 49ers to a 31-21 victory.
To many fans, winning a preseason game means nothing if one of the players does not respect the American flag or anthem. But his protest had a justified cause: police brutality against unarmed black people in America was getting out of hand.
Kaepernick’s actions sparked a chain of events, which ultimately built up to the President of the United States calling a player who decided to kneel during the anthem a “son of a bitch.” It is shocking how such a gentle and peaceful act can elicit such an angry response. President Trump’s response can be explained by looking into the group dynamics at play.
The NFL is 70 percent black. America is 72.4 percent white. It matters that most players are black and most fans are white. For some, it is hard to believe that racial differences affect dynamics between the crowd and the players. However, a Pennsylvania fire chief’s Facebook post gives insight into just how much these differences affect responses. He called the Pittsburgh Steelers’ coach a “no good n*****” for allowing his team to remain in a locker room during the national anthem. The fire chief’s reaction to nonviolent protesting is as strangely aggressive as Trump’s.
The identity of those who are kneeling play a huge role in the interpretation of their behavior. Football players are, in the eyes of the majority of football fans, aggressive and violent black men. Such fans have fallen victim to believing the stereotype that all strong and muscular black men are prone to violence. The filter cast by the stereotype has distorted how many view the players’ actions and makes it difficult for people to see the true intentions of those taking a knee.
From another perspective, kneeling throughout history has been seen as a sign of reverence, submission, respect or even grief. The act of physically making the body appear smaller is a way to give more power to whatever one is kneeling. Therefore, football players kneeling to protest racial injustice does not make very much sense in the historical context.
However, Colin Kaepernick forced an entirely new perspective onto the act. From the first moment his knees brushed the grass, he transformed the national anthem into a somber reminder of how much further this country has to go in regards to racial justice and equality.
His decision to kneel during the national anthem asked: who would want to celebrate a country that does not celebrate them? His grass-stained knees demanded to know: how many more unarmed black Americans will have to die?