I’m not going to pretend that I know how to talk about football, but I won’t play clueless either. I had the middle-of-America, Friday Night Lights high school experience. I stood in bleachers, and I watched. Slowly, throughout our lives, we develop a de facto rulebook for what our athletes — American heroes of sorts — are allowed to do. This distinction between right and wrong hit its most dissonant chord in this weekend’s news. Of all the things we’ve decided it’s perfectly acceptable for professional players to do, apparently “kneeling” is not among them.
In 2015, Vice published an article, listing all 44 current NFL players accused of physical or sexual assault. Much of this violence is domestic, and if you delve into the statistics of crimes committed by professional football players, you’ll find a haunting pattern of assault or murder of women pregnant with a player’s child. Sure, we can’t claim the league is doing nothing, but, in general, these men appear to escape scot-free from charges of violence against women, and they continue their highly publicized careers, adored and idolized by their loyal fan bases.
Johnny Manziel. O.J. Simpson. Greg Hardy. Ray Rice. Ben Roethlisberger. Jameis Winston. Brandon Marshall. Dede Westbrook. Joe Mixon. These are the names of professional football players that allegedly committed acts of gendered violence, and to varying degrees got away with it. Almost all of these players faced, or are currently facing, issues in their career, but for many of them the door is still open. This is not law, and domestic violence has rightfully ruined some player’s careers (Ray Rice seemingly among them), but these cases continue to slip through the cracks. It’s important to note the NFL’s official policy on domestic abuse: first-time offenders are suspended for six games and any following offenses result in a lifetime ban. It seems as if the NFL is laying out a twisted law: it’s okay to beat your partner once, but just don’t do it again or, even worse, don’t get caught again.
So, football players may persist as abusers while still maintaining success in their life on the field, or at least hope for future success, according to the status quo. This is treated as “acceptable behavior.” Now, let’s look at Colin Kaepernick, a man who took a knee during the national anthem as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, opposing police brutality. This quarterback quickly became unemployed, with NFL executives calling him “an embarrassment to football” and declaring his career “over.” Kneeling, a form of peaceful protest against violence towards black and brown bodies, ended this man’s pursuit of football.
Of course, President Donald Trump chimed in with a round of hateful tweets, calling players who protest disrespectful and worthy of firing. Activism is equated to a “career ruiner” but domestic violence often holds no such consequence. This past Sunday, more than 200 professional football players participated in a form of protest during the national anthem, kneeling or raising their fists, an act of incredible bravery. The response was mixed, many fans booed while others offered their support — from veterans to celebrities, everyone seems to have a strong opinion.
Reality has become warped for professional athletes. I don’t believe celebrities should be in any way invincible. They deserve fair and equal punishment for crimes committed (however, it’s critical to acknowledge that fair and equal criminal punishment isn’t something that exists in today’s prison industrial complex, which detains black and brown bodies at horrifically unjust rates), but peaceful protest is not a crime. Check the beloved constitution. We, as humans, should have accountability. These players are using their spotlight to make a powerful political statement. I could not be more impressed. The Black Lives Matter movement has permeated sports for years now; in 2014, NBA players wore “I can’t breathe” shirts in solidarity with Eric Garner, who was murdered by a police officer. Today, these protests have become decidedly anti-Trump, which seems reasonable to me, considering President Trump is anti-protest — or, at least, anti-Black-people-protesting. He called the white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people,” but he wants to fire these peaceful professional athletes? I’m getting dizzy trying to rationalize his irrationality.
I want to see a world where fan bases and politicians are as enraged by racialized and gendered violence as they are with kneeling during the national anthem. I see no disrespect towards America in these protests. Instead, I see an undying respect for this country and a desire to hold it to an impeccable standard. Writer James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” So, let’s keep critiquing her. Let’s take a knee, raise a fist and say that Black Lives Matter. It shouldn’t take a football career to be an activist, and being an activist shouldn’t take away a football career.
Sarah Lieberman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Blueberries for Sal appears alternate Thursdays this semester.