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The truth behind why NFL players are protesting and how their message gets lost in the politics

Colin Kaepernick first started to protest during the national anthem in 2016. A lot has happened since then, but the way we talk about protests remains the same.

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It’s been more than two years since Colin Kaepernick began to protest during the national anthem in the 2016 preseason. Hardly anyone noticed the first couple of times he did it, but that changed the third time he did — and its effects continue to be felt today.

But the way we talk about the protests is still the same as it was in 2016. The NFL fan base remains divided on the topic, in part because it gets exploited for political purposes that have nothing to do with the reason the protests began. With a national election less than 60 days away, the issue only figures to metastasize among politicians on the campaign trail.

For the NFL, there is no magical cure that will make every team, owner, player, and fan happy.

Whether it’s the right course or not, the league has still tried to find a solution that everyone can agree on. It has tried to reach compromises that aren’t really compromises. It has tried to do the impossible and quiet Donald Trump.

And the point of the protests can be easily lost.

Players have a good reason for protesting.

Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest, beginning in August of 2016, was rooted in bringing attention to police brutality and the systemic inequality faced by people of color in the United States. It was not about the anthem itself and had nothing to do with U.S. troops.

He began his protest by sitting for the national anthem and then altered his demonstration to take a knee.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said, via “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

In 2016, when Kaepernick began his protest, black people made up only 13% of the population but also:

Kaepernick’s protest came a month after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police and three months before Donald Trump — who kicked off his campaign by saying undocumented immigrants from Mexico were “bringing crime. They’re rapists” — was elected president.

Why did they choose to take a knee as their protest?

The decision to kneel rather than sit during the anthem came from a discussion Kaepernick and his teammate, safety Eric Reid, had with former San Francisco 49er and Green Beret Nate Boyer who said he made the suggestion to Kaepernick to kneel instead of sitting, those same people ignored it.

“We were talking to him about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are,” Kaepernick said. “And as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee. Because there are issues that still need to be addressed and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country.”

Reid reemphasized that point in a New York Times op-ed he wrote in September 2017:

“We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

Soon, other NFL players like Jeremy Lane, Malcolm Jenkins, Brandon Marshall, Arian Foster, and Marshawn Lynch would all stage their own silent acts of protest during the anthem over the next two years, using that platform to address and explain their actions afterward.

But some people were angry!

Perhaps the biggest disconnect with player protests is the illusion of American inclusivity versus the actual practice and execution of American inclusivity. Most people who want the players to stand for the anthem either haven’t had any issues with discrimination at the hands of the government, or simply don’t care.

Instead of listening to the players about the actual issues involving systemic racism, they warped the issue into one about the military and the flag.

Former Army Ranger and current Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva said he personally had no issue with the protest either.

“Nobody thinks that when you’re taking a knee, you’re offending the flag ... and I don’t think anybody that’s standing for the flag is not respecting the fact that there are a lot of injustices and racial divides in our country.”

Hell, players weren’t even required to stand on the sidelines for the anthem until 2009.

The outrage continued — fed by the president’s appetite for cheap political gain by criticizing players — even after public dialog with players, veterans, and others showed it wasn’t about the anthem, the flag, or the military. It was about the suppression of black voices that attempted to shake the status quo.

Richard Sherman chimed in with his thoughts, saying that the response to Kaepernick’s protest was for black athletes to “stay in your place.”

The players aren’t blaming white people on an individual level for the callous treatment toward players that kneel. All that’s being asked is to take a deeper look at the United States’ justice system that is currently leaving an inordinate amount of its black constituents dead in the street.

American inclusivity is meaningless until the humanity of certain citizens is respected; that’s what the protesting athletes are asking for.

Trump uses player protests to score political points.

As he has with several different topics, President Donald Trump took the issue and escalated it to new levels in bombastic fashion.

In March 2017, he bragged that the reason Kaepernick remained unsigned was because owners “don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump.

He later took aim at the league in September 2017 at a campaign rally for the Alabama special election for the U.S. Senate. At the rally, Trump said:

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s gonna say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in the country.

Trump, who also criticized the league’s crackdown on concussion-creating dangerous hits in his speech, doubled-down on his comments the next day on Twitter. This drew a rebuke from players both on social media and on the field. The following Sunday saw the largest anthem demonstrations the league had ever seen, with players kneeling, linking arms, raising fists, and wearing Kaepernick T-shirts in response. Even coaches and owners took part.

Despite the pushback, it was clear the president had no desire to back off his stance. “This is a very winning, strong issue for me,” Trump warned Jerry Jones last year. “Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”

It’s easy to see why. Trump appealed to his voter base on a non-essential issue that allowed him to score points, or, as SB Nation NFL Editor Ryan Van Bibber put it:

“It’s red meat for Trump’s base, easy political fodder to cite in support of a hateful, racist agenda. And it’s a big problem for the NFL.”

Two weeks later, Vice President Mike Pence attended a Colts game, with tickets provided by prominent Republican donor and Lucas Oil Stadium’s namesake Forrest Lucas. When 49ers safety Eric Reid took a knee, Pence left — and made sure to let the world know how offended he was. The stunt was planned in advance, and news that it cost taxpayers more than a quarter of a million dollars became the main story.

Player protests and the NFL’s response continue to be a regular feature of Trump’s tweets and campaign rallies. And with the 2018 midterm elections less than two months away, candidates of both parties are already starting to use the issue to rally voters and raise funds.

Player protests are NOT hurting ratings and driving fans away.

Television ratings for NFL games declined by 9 percent in 2016, a trend that continued with another 9 percent drop for the 2017 season.

Lots of things have been blamed for the ratings drop. One popular assertion, cited by the president and his supporters, is that ratings have plummeted due to the protests. But as with so many other things on that particular Twitter user’s timeline, it’s just not true.

Polls from both J.D. Power and Rasmussen refuted the idea that scores of fans were turning off their televisions upon catching a glimpse of a protesting player or that the majority of fans had a strong opinion either way.

The NFL’s ratings have not declined as sharply as the rest of broadcast television. More than protests, the NFL’s ratings are feeling the pinch from rapidly changing consumption patterns thanks to an evolving digital landscape.

Profits have not declined. The league shared a record $8.1 billion with its 32 teams for 2017. The NFL’s overall revenue was estimated to be around $14 million last year. The rights to broadcast pro football are more valuable than ever, evidenced by Fox’s record five-year, $3.3 billion deal for Thursday Night Football and Amazon’s two-year, $130 million deal to stream those Thursday night games.

Despite hard evidence to the contrary, NFL team owners remain skittish about players taking a knee on the field. That was the goal behind the ham-fisted anthem policy approved by owners in May — as the Browns’ Jimmy Haslam told SB Nation’s Thomas George — “get the focus back on football.”

Owners are split on how to respond, but when it comes down to it, the NFL wants it to go away.

Commissioner Roger Goodell may seem like the NFL’s czar, but he’s just a figurehead for the owners of the 32 franchises who collectively make the rules. And for those NFL owners famously adverse to conflict, the protests represent a financial risk and a difficult “problem” that needs fixing.

Owners, minus a couple detractors, hastily passed a new anthem policy in May 2018 that sought to keep protests out of sight. The policy would have compelled players to stand if they were on the field for the anthem while also allowing them to stay in the locker room. The policy didn’t make much sense.

Billed a compromise, owners never consulted with the NFLPA, and the union filed a grievance. Shortly after that a wave of bad PR forced them to shelve the new rule after a proposed Dolphins policy giving the team the authority to suspend players for up to four games.

With the rule on hold, there are currently no guidelines for how teams should or how they can proceed when players protest.

The NFL has made it clear that it still “expects” players to stand during the national anthem, but for now there aren’t any punishments in place:

That’s unlikely to change, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter:

The new policy is going to be no policy -- at least for this season, according to sources.

Too many people have stances too strong to figure out a compromise, but an NFL official insisted Sunday morning that there is continuing dialogue on the topic as the league looks for ways to address social justice issues.

For the most conservative owners, like the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, the lack of official guidelines means ruling with an iron fist.

Jones’ rule of making players stand actually violates both the NFL’s policy as well as the newer one currently on hold. Besides, a hard-line stance like Jones’ would not solve things for the NFL. It appeases one subset of fans, while frustrating another.

The approach taken by Jones is one designed specifically to appease the president (which it did), and whose interest in the issue Jones himself called “problematic.”

For owners, the endgame is the elimination of protests during the national anthem, taking away an election year cudgel that they worry could drive fans away. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, like Jones, admitted as much this spring.

“Of course we want them to agree to stand,” a high-ranking official from one NFL team told the Washington Post recently.

Forcing players to stand may placate one group of fans, but it would not sit well with players, as evidenced my Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins calling Jerry Jones a “bully” in the wake of his comments.

As of the season opener on Sep. 6, the league and NFLPA are still talking with no resolution in place and it doesn’t appear that one is on the way.

The players have done a lot of good work to try to fix the problems they’re protesting against.

Player protests have taken different forms. Some have kneeled, sat, or raised a fist. Others have rested a hand on a teammate who is demonstrating.

But they’ve done more than just use their platform to protest — they’ve also tried to actively bring about change.

Here’s a small sampling of some of the work these players have done in the community to address the issues that prompted the protests in the first place:

Colin Kaepernick: Soon after he began his protests in 2016, Kaepernick promised to donate $1 million to different organizations that focused on helping oppressed people. In January 2018, Kaepernick reached his goal: $1 million spread across 41 charities, including 100 Suits for 100 Men, Lower East Side Girls Club, and Communities United for Police Reform. He has also funded free “Know Your Rights” camps throughout the world.

Eric Reid: Reid presented Kaepernick with the Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2018, and then the two held a “Know Your Rights” camp for Amsterdam youth. Reid created his own foundation to give people in disadvantaged communities the tools they need to develop into leaders. His website also says he plans to build a homeless shelter in his hometown of Baton Rouge.

Malcolm Jenkins: In addition to his work with the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation that helps young people in underprivileged areas, Jenkins has visited Congress to advocate for criminal justice reform and has also met with, and gone on a ride-along with, the Philadelphia Police Department.

After Trump canceled the Eagles’ visit to the White House, Jenkins made a powerful statement when he silently held up signs that detailed stats about police brutality, the prison population for people of color, and the activism of his fellow NFL players.

In preseason, Jenkins and other players wore shirts highlighting the disproportionate amount of people of color in prison.

Chris Long: During the 2017 season, Long donated his game checks and helped raise an addition $1.3 million for education equality. He teamed up with Nate Boyer and other military veterans to bring wells to Tanzania. The Chris Long Foundation has four main causes: clean water, homelessness, the military, and youth in need.

Kenny Stills: Stills took steps to develop the relationship between the South Florida community and police, including organizing town halls and a ride-along program. In early 2018, Stills traveled throughout the southeastern U.S. to continue his fight for social justice, including stops at one of Kaepernick’s “Know Your Rights” camps and a protest with Dream Defenders.

Other NFL players have joined in backing similar initiatives, many of whom are members of the Players Coalition, a group of about 100 current and former players co-founded by Jenkins and Anquan Boldin.

That includes Demario Davis and Benjamin Watson, who endorsed a Louisiana voting rights bill, as well as Doug Baldwin. In 2016, Baldwin demanded a nationwide review of police training. The following year, Baldwin and Roger Goodell signed a letter on behalf of the NFL to support a criminal justice reform bill. Baldwin also helped create the Seahawks Players Equality & Justice for All Action Fund whose first action was to hand out grants to seven non-profits.

In a New York Times op-ed, Jenkins, Boldin, Baldwin, and Watson responded to Trump — who has a selective understanding of the meaning of protests — and his request for pardon recommendations.

But a handful of pardons will not address the sort of systemic injustice that N.F.L. players have been protesting. These are problems that our government has created, many of which occur at the local level. If President Trump thinks he can end these injustices if we deliver him a few names, he hasn’t been listening to us.

The Players Coalition has pushed reform through education, lawmakers, and the voting booth. It hasn’t been without its bumps, however. Reid, Stills, safety Michael Thomas, and Russell Okung split from the group in late 2017 following a disagreement with a deal it had reached with the NFL. The league pledged a $89 million donation for social justice causes, but Reid and Co. disapproved of how the negotiations were handled, where the funds were coming from, and Kaepernick’s lack of involvement with the Coalition.

Kaepernick and Reid filed collusion cases against the NFL when teams weren’t showing much interest in signing them as free agents. Reid was later signed by the Carolina Panthers, and he continued to kneel during the national anthem.

Detractors had said they aren’t good enough to get a job (both were starters before hitting free agency) or that they’re just distractions.

Arguably no team is more committed to activism than the Eagles, who won their first ever Super Bowl in 2018.