No Eagles or Patriots player is expected to take a knee when the national anthem is sung before Super Bowl LII kicks off, which means the biggest story of the 2017 NFL season won’t have a role in its biggest game.
Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice and police violence at the start of the 2016 season. For the first two months of this season, the story dominated every weekend as we constantly asked who was protesting, what owners were doing, and what the president said this time. We even dubbed Sept. 24 — days after Donald Trump called players who knelt “sons of bitches” — a Day of Reckoning. There were more than 150 player protests that weekend and 19 team demonstrations.
By Week 17, just seven players continued kneeling — Duane Brown, Marquise Goodwin, Eli Harold, Louis Murphy, Eric Reid, Kenny Stills, and Olivier Vernon — none of whom play for either of the NFL’s two best teams. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins notably stopped raising his fist in the air at the end of November after the NFL agreed to give $89 million to social justice causes. The decision caused a split in the Jenkins-led Players Coalition, which had seemed for much of the season like a unified bloc of a few dozen players committed to pressuring the NFL into maintaining players’ ability to protest and helping to combat police brutality and racial injustice.
So it happened that the national conversation about Kaepernick and taking a knee seemed to peter out among players as the latter half of the season progressed into the playoffs.
As Eagles and Patriots players warm up for the Super Bowl, however, a rally will be taking place as close to U.S. Bank Stadium as demonstrators can get. Take a Knee Nation was borne out of Kaepernick’s example. Members of the group organized dozens of people to take a knee outside U.S. Bank Stadium at every Vikings home game this season. Before the game, it coalesced to schedule two days of conversations and protests during Super Bowl weekend — a conference Saturday, then a rally Sunday — centered on race, police violence, and the right to protest.
Mel Reeves, one of the leading organizers, is the emcee for Saturday’s conference, and he sets the tone of it early: “Everybody asks what kind of conference this is,” he says, “this is a hell-raising conference.” In the front row sit 12 mothers whose sons were killed by police, shouting encouragement in response.
And yet, almost within the same breath, Reeves admits that turnout isn’t what he hoped. It had been snowing all day — “the weather, man.” Eight days before, he told me he had hoped to get 250 to 300 people to show up, and my rough count put the attendance around 80.
And yet the spirit of the proceedings is undiminished. Eventually, the mothers are given a chance to stand up, one by one, and explain who they are and what happened to their sons. They alternate feelings of disgust, despair, outrage, resignation, and hope.
LaToya Howell is the mother of Justus Howell, who was fatally shot by police in 2015 at 17 years old: “I’m out here walking egg shells my Lord God, because you said I’m supposed to have justice, right? Where’s the proof?”
Dorothy Holmes’ son Ronnie Johnson was 25 when he was killed by police in 2014: “But he got a fighting mama. I’ve been fighting for three years. This will be my fourth year. I ain’t going nowhere.”
Jenkins acknowledged Kaepernick during the week of the Super Bowl, saying, “I didn’t realize that the platform could be this big until Colin Kaepernick first took a knee ... When he did that, that was kind of an ‘aha’ moment to me because I had already been doing work in the community, working with police and things like that.”
But as well-intended as Jenkins’ words may have been, they fell short of the unequivocal standard Kaepernick set when he spoke about his actions and 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.”
It’s hard to know what the future of NFL protest will be. Commissioner Roger Goodell has said that he will not impede players’ right to protest, but he has also said that he is a proponent of standing for the anthem, and as reported by The Undefeated, the league’s pledge to social justice causes seems motivated, at least in some part, by putting an end to the movement:
The message was from Reid, a Louisiana native. He was out. He would later claim that he could not go forward after Jenkins sent him a text asking if he and Thomas would end their protests if the league contributed money to their causes. Jenkins confirmed the text to The Undefeated but said it was in response to a call he, Reid, Thomas and Boldin had had days earlier with four NFL executives: Vincent, Goodell, chief operating officer Tod Leiweke and chief financial officer Joe Siclare. Vincent also confirmed that he specifically asked each player what more the league could do to support the players or address their concerns, with an implicit understanding that the endgame was to make the players comfortable enough that they’d no longer feel the need to demonstrate.
Whatever happens next season in the league, it’s hard to deny that the Kaepernick movement has made an impact beyond the field. Monique Cullars-Doty is a local activist, and the aunt of Marcus Golden, a 24-year-old man who was shot and killed by police in Minneapolis. She likens Kaepernick to Katniss Everdeen, the lead character of the book series The Hunger Games, in which she volunteers herself to take part in a fight to the death to help save her district.
“That’s like Colin Kaepernick, he volunteered. He took a knee, and they killed his career,” Cullars-Doty tears up. “He was talked about so bad, and people tried to change the discussion. And they did. The media changed the discussion away from what it was supposed to be. It was not about the military, it was not about the flag. It was about America not having value for people of color.”
That was the Kaepernick movement’s greatest strength, Cullars-Doty says: The ability to provoke a dialogue about police brutality that isn’t centered on the death of yet another young person color, even if, as she says, “the conversation has been tainted with lies.”
“Locally we keep attention on it because somebody else will be killed,” Cullars-Doty says. “And that just brings everything up again.”
Cullars-Doty is involved in Black Lives Matter Minnesota, Black Lives Matter Twin Cities, and the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, referring to Jamar Clark, the 24-year-old who several witness said was shot by police while handcuffed. One of her biggest roles as an activist, she says, is keeping the names alive of those who have been killed by hanging banners off freeway overpasses calling for justice in their name. She acknowledges the dead by hanging the banners on their birthdays or the anniversaries of their shootings.
At the conference, the mothers implore the crowd to say their sons’ names out loud. Chantel Brooks introduces herself as the mother of Michael Wesley, who was killed in Chicago in 2013. She pleads for help to no one in particular.
“I’m not looking for an organization or anything like that. But whoever’s trying to help me get the problem solved. So if it’s Black Lives Matter, if it’s this group, if it’s you, if it’s you,” her voice crescendoes, “if it’s you, if it’s you, I will do whatever I need to do to help my son. Please. I’m begging, Lord. I’m begging anybody. Please help me get my son.”
She’s yelling now: “Can you help me, please, I’m begging for help. Please! Say his name!”
The crowd responds: “Michael Wesley!”
“Say his name!”
After Trump made his initial comments against NFL player protests, the league responded by promoting “Unity.” The messaging galvanized many owners to kneel or stand elbows locked with their players against a common enemy: The President of the United States, and not racial injustice, the thing that kneeling was initially supposed to protest against.
That weekend further muddied the message of a movement that many claimed was a protest against the United States itself — and often, more specifically, its troops. Others simply wish that NFL players would Stick To Sports.
“I have watched sportscasters talking about this from a vantage point which was very infuriating,” Cullars-Doty says. “One woman said, ‘I just want things to go back to the way they used to be when I could just go to a football game and enjoy myself.’ How are you not enjoying yourself because someone’s taking a knee? How is that really negatively impacting you?”
Reeves, the man who helped organize Take a Knee Nation, is 60. He has been doing activist work for more than 30 years, which he admits makes him an “old dude.” He has been frustrated by the way dialogue is carried out nowadays. Social media, he says, encourages people to “take shots at each other a little more than they normally would,” which he believes encourages disunity among people. He believes that in today’s environment, it can be harder to take a stand for something than it was in, say, the 1960s.
“Not that for John Carlos and Tommie Smith it was easy,” Reeves says. “It still took guts to stand up on that podium and put your fist in the air. It took guts for Muhammad Ali not to cross the line and be inducted into the US armed services. It was tough then and it’s tough now, but the environment is just not as conducive for it.”
It’s impossible to say yet what 2018 will hold. Unfortunately, it certainly will contain more tragedy. According to the Washington Post database, 100 people have been killed in police shootings this year in the United States, putting the country on pace for the most in any year since 2015.
No, what’s unclear is where those who feel they have been done harm by the American justice system will find help amplifying their voices. Movements often have a limited shelf life, especially in an environment where it is easy to feel as if your message has been twisted or gotten sidetracked by another outrage.
For the mothers who lost their sons to police violence, however, there can be no moving on. And in the total vacuum of a movement, the only thing they have to sustain their fight in the national consciousness is their own pain. Sunday’s rally may or may not be as big as Take a Knee Nation would have hoped, but the passion behind the movement can’t be diminished.
“We were forced to this obligation. Do you know how much it takes to be here?” Howell says, her voice almost breaking. “Look at us. Look at us. We don’t deserve this. I need somebody to feel this. I need somebody to go out and do something different today, and each and every day of our lives.”