Nobody noticed. It was just preseason. Those in attendance were there for fun and overpriced hot dogs and those actually paying attention were there to witness the pinnacle of human competitive spirit. Hundreds of individuals dressed in plastic body armor were vying for a coveted spot on the most prestigious 53-man working force in contemporary American culture. Spectators were there because they might have chance to find an under-the-radar fantasy football pick. They were not there to be a part of sports history — or American history, for that matter.
It was just preseason. Nobody was supposed to notice that as tens of thousands rose and removed their caps for the playing of the national anthem, a single individual cloaked in red and gold did not rise. But everybody did notice Colin Kaepernick and the world was given a healthy reminder that its favorite pastimes are, indeed, the greatest vehicles of change and unity that we have.
Politics and sports have always been closely intertwined. Sports’ greatest heroes, like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, are also some of the most powerful voices in social change. And yet, whenever politics and sports cross paths, it becomes a cause for heated public conversation.
Donald Trump weighed in on the issue himself. He called anyone in the NFL who elected to take a knee a “son of a b*tch.” He made several comments about football being ruined for enforcing new player safety rules about hits to the helmet. He disinvited the Golden State Warriors from the White House over Twitter because Stephen Curry expressed hesitation about attending. It felt like Trump was attacking the NFL and the integrity of sports as a whole.
A collective outrage arose, similar to the anger that was breathed to life when Kaepernick first took a knee. People were angry. Football was angry. Sports were angry. Change is hard, and when it affects the integrity of our games, it is even harder to understand.
Sports are so much more than a game. In their purest form, sports are fiction. They are a stage for heroism, for victory and defeat. Sports provide a venue for creation, for craft and style. They are sites for moral education, breeding grounds for personal identity and national culture. Sports are good storytelling. They are an escape, providing people of all backgrounds a respite from their normal lives. Sports provide an excuse to put hamburgers on the grill, to “crack open a cold one,” to socialize, to mow the lawn some other day. Sports bring people together. They are the reason that Iran and the United States can come together to watch a wrestling match amidst growing nuclear tensions.
But like any powerful fiction, sports are powerful agents for social change. A platform with as many eyes and tuned ears will always carry power. Though sports are indeed fiction, laced with limitless possibilities and unwritten endings, they are also the most powerful political vehicle. As fans, spectators and athletes alike can attest, sports can cause as much strife as they do joy. After all, it’s hard to be reminded of the real world at a time when fans are so desperately trying to escape it. When riots in Ferguson are on the news, its a lot easier to put on ESPN — until icons like Kaepernick are on ESPN too, an inescapable reminder of the conflicts in the world.
When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, it was an act of civil disobedience and an attempt to convey a message about police interactions with people of color. As Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Football fans were so angry that the NFL experienced detrimental drops in ratings. Public debate ensued. For many, the beloved escape became much too divisive and politically surreal. And for a long season of discussion about America, America’s Game, social injustice and the anthem, part of it did not seem so fun anymore.
When Kaepernick first took a knee, it was about social injustice. And then came Donald Trump and some choice comments about the stories we all choose to share. So, when the entire NFL took a knee, well, it is hard to say. The narrative is deep and complex and layered with different story lines, from Alejandro Villanueva’s perspective to that of Lebron James. Whether or not it was really about social injustice is debatable. Perhaps it was the strongest message on social justice since the display’s conception. Perhaps it was simply in spite of the President and his comments. Perhaps it was just a way of sports defending itself. Regardless of what was really said on the sidelines and in the world of athletics, one thing feels certain: over a year from Kaepernick’s electing to remain seated for the anthem, the NFL has done what sports has always done and will always do– linked arms and brought people together.