Storm of Controversy Over NFL Players’ “Take a Knee” Protest

October 9, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


On Sunday, September 24, more than 200 NFL players “took a knee”—got down on one knee—during playing of the national anthem, in a powerful statement against police brutality and the killing of Black, Latino and other oppressed people, and against social inequality; and as a show of solidarity in the face of the white-supremacist-in-chief Trump’s disgusting racist attacks on Colin Kaepernick and other Black athletes only days before. The players’ refusal to stand for the anthem was a wake-up call about intolerable injustice; it triggered widespread support across the country—and a storm of controversy and debate as well.

The following Sunday, however, the number of NFL players who took a knee or sat during the national anthem was far fewer than the week before. The San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks stood out, with 30 of the 49ers taking a knee during the anthem, backed up by the rest of the team, and nine Seattle players refusing to stand. One player, Marshawn Lynch of the Oakland Raiders, entered the field wearing a T-shirt saying “Everyone vs. Trump” before sitting during the anthem, and small groups of players on three other teams took a knee. But the rest of the teams stood for the anthem.

The week in between saw an intense polarization ignite, with millions on one side standing staunchly with the athletes, and on the other side millions strongly opposed. That included angry America-First-ers and white supremacists ramped up by Trump.

Taking a Knee Spreads Far and Wide

The players’ bold actions on the 24th spread far and wide. The same day—the start of the Women’s NBA championship playoff—the Los Angeles Sparks walked off the court at the start of the playing of the anthem, and didn’t return until it was over. The Sparks, along with other WNBA teams, had been protesting long before this, including in response to the hideous Nazi violence and murder—and Trump’s tacit support—in Charlottesville. And many others throughout society were inspired to use their platforms to stand with the players and against Trump by taking a knee:

  • Stevie Wonder and his son Kwame knelt on stage during the Global Citizen Celebration in Central Park, and Pharrell Williams knelt during his concert in Charlottesville. The cast of the Broadway musical 1984 took a knee as the curtain closed on their performance, and Michael Moore took a knee during his Broadway show as well.
  • Many, many other celebrities in the music and film industry came out in support: John Legend, Samuel L. Jackson, Ice Cube, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Rosie Perez, Conan O’Brien, Ellen DeGeneres, Bette Midler, Pearl Jam, and the author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling. Actors Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny from the X-Files posted their photo of support, as did the cast and executive producer of Star Trek: Discovery. Actor Jason Isaacs posted, “If I could take one knee on the bridge [of the U.S.S. Discovery] I would.” Actor John Leguizamo put out a message to anybody attending the next NFL games to take a knee not just to support the athletes, but to protest Trump’s “ruthless targeting of Black athletes and journalists.” (We urge readers to watch the piece by rapper Nick Cannon.)
  • High school athletes across the country also joined in taking a knee—on football fields, and more. Before a high school women’s soccer team in Maine, and the high school band that played the anthem before Monday night’s Oakland A’s baseball game. But many high school football players have been severely punished for taking up the NFL protests. Two Texas teenagers—one who knelt, the other who raised a fist—were forced to remove their uniforms on the field after being immediately thrown off the team by their Christian fundamentalist coach. At a school in Florida, 20 students protested a new school policy requiring students to get permission from their parents before taking a knee. One protester, co-captain of the women’s cross-country team, said, “I see it on social media. People say extremely hurtful things all the time and it’s horrible to sit back and see it. That’s why I am out here today.”
  • Shaun King tweeted: “And it has begun. High schools are now following Trump’s order.”
    Across the country school districts are issuing policies about protesting during the anthem—in some cases threatening punishment. The New York Times weighed in, reporting that courts have said that students cannot be prevented from protesting.
  • Georgetown University law professors and students in DC took a knee to condemn the appearance of Attorney General Sessions on their campus; as did organizers for November 4th, who took a knee on the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles!

“America First” Backlash

The ruling Trump/Pence regime was livid. Between September 24 and 25, Trump posted no fewer than 12 tweets, each one attacking the players for being unpatriotic. One post said: “Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their country.” The fascist propaganda machine—Fox, the talk radio circuit, and social media trolls—cranked out attacks, outraged that these wealthy Black men were “ungrateful” and unpatriotic.

CNN reported that the reactions to the NFL players’ actions “have been blowing up the Internet.” Clips of fans burning jerseys—and season tickets—went viral. An Ohio county sheriff banned his deputies from working the upcoming Cleveland Browns game; the Louisiana lieutenant governor announced he would boycott the next New Orleans Saints game. And after the Cleveland Browns stayed off the field during the anthem the first week, a fire chief in Ohio was forced to resign after this post: “[Pittsburgh Steelers coach] Tomlin just added himself to the list of no good Niggers. Yes I said it.”

Delanie Walker, tight end for the Tennessee Titans, and his family received death threats after speaking in support of the anthem protests. He wrote, “The racist and violent words directed at me and my son only serve as another reminder that our country remains divided and full of hateful rhetoric.”

Trump’s massive twitter-storm was not just an expression of his racist outrage at ungrateful Black athletes. Enforced patriotism, flag worship, and honoring the military is an essential component of the fascist program of “Making America Great Again.” Repeatedly Trump emphasized that the players must be punished if they don’t submit: “Fire or suspend!”

While Trump is hated by many for the viciousness of his attack, many of those who support the players, and many of the players themselves, have been made defensive by the controversy created by his appeal to naked American chauvinism. Bob Costas, the veteran sports writer, expressed support for the players’ right to protest, and to their cause, and then made the liberal Democratic argument that the players had to back up, and back down. “The idea of linking protests, no matter how legitimate the issue you are protesting, directly to the national anthem is not just offensive to the love-it-or-leave-it crowd. It actually causes ambivalent feelings, at best, among many people who are sympathetic to the issue but see the anthem as representing a lot of different things, including the country’s ideals and aspirations.”

Protest is fine, but you can’t touch the anthem

What Costas was actually saying is, “Yes, protest is fine, but you can’t touch the anthem, the flag, and the American chauvinism they represent—because it makes too many people—like me—‘uncomfortable.’’’ And then he attacked Colin Kaepernick—who inspired this entire movement and is now being blackballed by the owners—essentially for being too radical; and called Marshawn Lynch “disgraceful” for sitting “disrespectfully” during the anthem. In response to this kind of pressure, a lot of the players felt it necessary to insist that taking a knee against the oppression of Black people was in no way meant to disrespect “our fighting men and women,” or the flag; and have been won not to kneel during the anthem.

Why I BURN the Flag...

As Joey Johnson puts it in “Why I Burn the Flag...” at, it has become essentially a precondition to be part of the conversation that people first say how patriotic they are, how much they support the military, how they are not dissing the flag. But, as Johnson continues, “Shouldn’t someone tell these athletes, and people broadly in society—including the soldiers in the U.S. military—the TRUTH? Don’t people need to know that there is not a separation between so many of the outrages they are protesting—police brutality and murder, mass incarceration, the oppression of Black people and other people of color—and the American flag?”

Bob Avakian has spoken powerfully to this urgent need to confront and break with American chauvinism in his new talk, “The Problem, the Solution, and the Challenges Before Us”:

While it is right and necessary to unite with people broadly in opposing the injustices and outrages committed by those who rule this country, and while this has taken on heightened importance with the coming to power of the Trump/Pence fascist regime, it is a basic truth that without breaking with American chauvinism—without confronting the very real horror of what this country has been, and what it has done, here and all over the world, from its founding to the present—and without coming to deeply hate this, it is not possible, in the final analysis, to retain one’s own humanity and act in the highest interests of all humanity.

This is the challenge that confronts those NFL players who have refused to stand for the national anthem, a symbol of American chauvinism; and those who have backed them up. And everyone who is coming to hate and find intolerable the crimes of this system, and the even greater horrors openly promised by the Trump/Pence regime, has got to confront, and break with, the American chauvinism that the Trump/Pence regime and the rulers of this country are using as a key ideological weapon in maintaining their rule.



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