TakeAKnee Part 4: The Legitimacy of the Cause

Raised Fist

This is the final post of my 4-part series exploring the ongoing protests taking place in the NFL. For context, I recommend starting with Part 1.


Beneath all the talk about troops and patriotic displays, where most of the arguments about the NFL protests ultimately reach an impasse is with regard to the legitimacy of the cause. Very few people would be upset about the method of protest if they felt the protestors had a valid grievance. The divide on this is broader and long predates the current conversations sparked by any NFL players, so I’m not so naïve as to think I’m going to convince anyone to change their mind on it in a short-form editorial. But what I can do is share my own personal journey of how I’ve come to think differently about this question over the years, and maybe even encourage the genuinely curious and open-minded to check out some more thorough material on the matter.

I grew up in the era of ‘color blindness,’ where the guiding mantra was: don’t see race; just treat all people the same. The spirit behind this tenet was good and my parents had the best of intentions in instilling this in me. But it only addresses racism at the individual, conscious level; it doesn’t touch the systemic or unconscious. A good argument can be made that we are largely beyond the days of overtly racist individuals. To be sure, they still exist (see: Charlottesville), but they’ve been largely repudiated, stigmatized, and pushed to the margins of society. But along with them, the term ‘racist’ itself has become so stigmatized that we can’t even talk about it without causing such a visceral reaction that it shuts down conversation, because we’ve turned it into no more than an individual label, prompting the automatic defensive, “How dare you accuse me of that!”

This is unfortunate, as the terms ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ didn’t always have such a narrow meaning. There can be racist policies, for example, or institutionalized racism resulting from unjust infrastructure and reinforced through the unconscious biases of society over time, and not necessarily the result of a specific individual bigot. Just like we know black holes exist (even though we can’t see them directly) because of the physical effect they have on the cosmic bodies around them, we know this type of injustice exists because of racially disparate outcomes, regardless of intent. From current lending practices, to redlining and other legacy housing policies that still have a disproportionately negative impact on minority neighborhoods; to the War on Drugs’ disproportionate impact on people of color even though whites are equally likely to sell and use drugs; to specific drug laws with disparate impact such as sentencing laws for crack—the form of the drug found in poorer, urban ghettos—being 18 times as high as the penalty for the same amount of cocaine—another form of the exact same drug more common to affluent white suburbia (a recent ‘improvement,’ by the way, over the former 100:1 disparity); to racial disparities in discretionary sentencing for the exact same crime that have been repeatedly demonstrated; along with many other aspects of the criminal justice system and prison industrial complex that have resulted in disparate outcomes.

There are mountains of data to support the existence of these disparities—to anyone skeptical or genuinely curious, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is a great place to start. But at the very least, I hope the one thing we can agree on is that it’s much more complicated than the question, “Is that officer a racist?” We have to zoom out to look beyond the controversial big-headline stories to see the vast underbelly of subtle injustices that eventually led up to it. Our stubborn insistence on limiting the term ‘racist’ exclusively to the realm of an individually internalized heart condition is, at its core, narcissistic. Outcomes are what matter, not just what’s in the heart. And the Bible says we shall know a tree by its fruit. We have to get beyond our fear of the word, and acknowledge that there are subversive, institutionalized practices that result in inequality regardless of intent, before we can work together to fix them.

Listening to the Personal Experience

Lastly, I’ll end this series with a reprise of a theme I touched on in Part 1 by re-emphasizing my own need to listen to the stories of people of color and understand that my own white middle-class perspective is not the ‘default’ or ‘right’ perspective on America. The ‘age of colorblindness’ made me blissfully unaware of things I can no longer ignore. Beyond just the practical impossibility of ignoring it—in the last few years my wife and I have been guardians to a Filipino teen, host parents to a Latina exchange student, and are raising our own Black child (pictured above at NMAAHC)—I’ve come to realize that my station in life doesn’t give me the luxury to say race doesn’t matter or isn’t an issue. Of course it doesn’t matter or isn’t an issue—for me. Why should it? But I can’t expect my neighbors of color to feel the same way; I haven’t lived their experience.

By analogy, it would seem a bit like a millionaire telling a friend who’s struggling financially: “Just don’t worry about money so much—my secret is I don’t let it create stress or rule my life.” There’s nothing wrong with that philosophy toward money—in fact it probably couldn’t be more right—but it would be pretty tone deaf for someone, to whom money truly isn’t an issue, to say that to someone who doesn’t know where their next rent payment is coming from. Likewise, I’m just not in a qualified position to tell someone else how much or how little race should matter to them.

But what about those who will take advantage of that? Play the race card simply to exploit an advantage that wasn’t warranted? What about those who will claim victimhood to abuse compassion beyond its intended bounds? For the love of God, what about black-on-black crime?

In short: not mine to assess. We are still fallen humans, regardless of race, but just as we talk about personal responsibility: others are to be accountable for their own actions, and I am to be accountable for mine, which is why I will always default to an attempt to listen, understand, and extend compassion anyway. If you, too, desire to hear more of the personal experience side, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is a great place to start, a profound individual reflection of personal anecdotes and life experience; a counterbalance (purely from a genre standpoint) to Alexander’s more data-driven book referenced above.

In order to work together to fix injustice, we must be willing to acknowledge that we might be one who benefits from the existing power structures, listen to the perspectives of those who might not, and recognize that the challenge is more complex than our interpretation of individual attitudes. That is to say, your personal status of ‘not a racist’ doesn’t give you a pass from helping solve the problem. Having won the genetic lottery, I won’t be that guy who tells someone race doesn’t matter just because it doesn’t matter to me. And this is the reason I strive not to respond with indignation or dismissiveness toward athletes making a provocative statement, or the hurt and angry reaction of a community reeling from a racially charged incident, unless I’m absolutely sure I fully understand their history, worldview, and life experience. And I don’t. But I want to, and I’m trying.

<< Back to Part 3

TakeAKnee Part 3: Sorry, Your Love of Country is Obscured by all that Patriotism


This is the third in a 4-part series exploring the ongoing protests taking place in the NFL. For context, I recommend starting with Part 1.


Patriotism as Compulsory

I’m no legal expert, but if my employer decided to start each day with the Pledge of Allegiance, and I chose to quietly abstain, my hunch is they’d probably have a hard time firing me over that, provided it wasn’t a part of my employment contract or affecting my job performance in some way. I’m also no expert in NFL contracts so as to say whether a team/owner could be warranted in firing a player for abstaining from standing for the anthem, but legality aside, I find it odd that anyone (let alone the president) would suggest they should be required to stand for the anthem in the first place, since the concept of “compelled respect” is self-evidently oxymoronic. Surely everyone but Kim Jong-un gets this…?

Patriotism as Government-Sponsored

For my employer to introduce a patriotic display prior to the day’s work activities would also be just exceedingly weird. Owing to longstanding tradition, it’s decidedly less weird to sing the anthem before a major sporting event, but consider how the NFL has amped up these displays in recent years. It’s only since 2009 that they began having players gather on the field before the anthem—prior to that they didn’t emerge from the locker room until afterward. And it’s not just the anthem anymore. I’m bombarded now with all manner of lasers and cannons, color guard displays, field-sized flags, and fighter jet fly-bys, all so that my military can advertise its own might—at my expense—to me.

And why the recent change? Simply put, because the Department of Defense saw a demographic leaning in NFL viewership that lent itself to a recruiting opportunity, and has spent millions of dollars to capitalize on it more and more, especially since 9/11. A cynic could argue it’s exploitative. And if it sounds like I take umbrage with it, it’s not because I don’t appreciate our troops—don’t even go there—but I can think of better uses for my tax dollars. The change in policy to ensure players were on display during the anthem was just another element of the overall marketing strategy. So when we hear, “Stick to sports and keep the politics out of it,” let’s remember that it was the government that inserted politics into the sport, not the players.

Patriotism as Virtue Signaling

In my experience, very few people (though there are some) will get up off the couch in the privacy of their own home to remove their hat, put hand over heart, and silently stand during the singing of the anthem. It’s something we do at the ballpark because of the tradition and social norm of doing it as a crowd. In fact, by kneeling for the anthem, I’d venture to say the protestors are engaging with it at some level, ascribing some level of meaning to it, more so than the vast majority of the rest of us are (or at least were, before we all started thinking and talking about it more).

Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with such traditions and social norms. Continuing the national anthem at sporting events is fine; I stand with my hand over my heart and will continue to do so. But my point is: don’t mistake the tradition itself for what it represents. Because either way, whether in the ballpark or the privacy of your own home, you have to recognize that such patriotic displays are only a symbol of our patriotism, not the patriotism itself.

As case in point: many have pointed out that the kneelers should be doing more—put some action behind their words, put their money where their mouth is. To this I say: amen—I agree! But wait… why just the kneelers? Surely you wouldn’t let your disagreement with them expose your own double standard by bringing this up only now, because this concept of putting action behind the views you express publically has always applied, and applies even now, to both sides. Whether someone is kneeling or standing for the anthem, the greater consideration in either case is what they are doing about it after the game, right? Surely we don’t grant ourselves the moral licensing to do nothing to actually improve our country, just so long as we wrap ourselves in the flag when everybody’s looking, do we?

Of course not. The necessary next step, beyond temporarily getting out of your seat, is to actually get off your ass to do something to love your neighbor and improve your world, country, or local community. If you’re not backing up the display with such substance, then the symbol is not representing anything. It’s meaningless. It’s useless. It can even become a form of religious idolatry. And I submit that some have made it thus (more on that in a bit).

Patriotism in Many Forms

And that substance of your patriotism may take many forms, as Bob Costas correctly pointed out in a recent interview. It may be expressed through serving in the military with honor and dignity (as it was for my father). But as much as I honor and appreciate their sacrifice, I reject the notion that a monopoly on patriotism belongs to service men and women alone. Patriotism may also involve grinding out an often thankless career as an industrial arts teacher in a public school giving kids (some without many other options) a marketable, vocational skill, when you probably could have made more in the private sector (also my father). Patriotism might involve philanthropy to organizations that improve our communities, making a million-dollar pledge and then sticking to it even after you cease to draw your NFL salary. It might involve advocating for policy reform as in the recent letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee co-penned by wide receiver Doug Baldwin and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It might look like the many other examples of community engagement referenced in that same letter.

And patriotism, as exemplified by patriots through the past 250 years who have pushed us toward progress on numerous fronts, along with our founders themselves, might sometimes look like dissent and resistance. As Notes of a Native Son author and social critic James Baldwin wrote, “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.” Because productive democracy depends on its critics; it doesn’t dismiss them with “love it or leave it” bumper-sticker axioms.

Patriotism as Idolatry

But alas, our nouveau brand of patriotism in America is getting dangerously close to precisely this level of superficiality, something that emphasizes the display more than the substance. The most telling sign of this is that the NFL has come under far less criticism for their past and present leniency on more serious offenses. In what kind of world does the importance of outward displays of patriotism run so high that—while we are willing to turn a blind eye to all manner of substance abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other forms of personal misconduct among football players—that this, of all things, is the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

It was written like a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer it anyway: the kind of world where we’ve planted the seeds of idolatry by coming to prize the packaging more than the contents.

To echo the words of James’ epistle (2:18) in applying them to another context: show me your patriotic displays, and I’ll show you my patriotism by what I do.

The Faith Angle

To continue on this faith parallel (because it’s a good one), there are likewise differing expressions of faith from people with different gifts, or that call for emphasis in different contexts. An article a month ago explored how the act of kneeling by two different players (Tim Tebow in prayer, Colin Kaepernick in protest) represents two different manifestations of devotion that only together make a holistically healthy expression of the Christian faith. Tebow represents the importance of living out your faith in prayer and personal piety, and Kaepernick represents the importance of being a prophetic voice, living out your faith in the public square, speaking truth to authority and sometimes making the dominant power structures uncomfortable. Both are necessary. Both are biblical.

I do happen to believe that American Evangelicalism has over-emphasized the former while stigmatizing the latter, to our great loss. But I suppose this isn’t new or surprising—the prophets themselves were often persecuted and killed.

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TakeAKnee Part 2: The Posturing over the Posture


This is the second in a 4-part series exploring the ongoing saga of the protests taking place in the NFL. For context, I recommend starting with Part 1, in which I explore the respectability of the posture. In this post I will explore some of the common responses to the protest by those who wish to leverage them in service of varying agendas.


The Attempt to Minimize

The first inevitable question that arises is, “Aren’t there more important things to be talking about?” There’s something subtly disingenuous about the question to begin with, since (1) the person asking it typically is, in fact, talking about it, in order to express their own opinion on the matter, and (2) that opinion is often (not always, to be fair) not so much that they find other things to be more important, but just that they don’t find this cause to be worthy (in which case, just say that). But even if the answer is Yes—the obvious implied answer from the questioner—we need not subscribe to the false choice of conversations on one issue necessarily taking away from conversations on the others. The conversation around racial disparities in our country is important, whether you believe the NFL protests are effective in advancing that conversation or not. Disaster relief, mass shootings, and tensions with hostile foreign powers are also important. Are they more important? I’m uninterested in taking the bait of that question’s unspoken intent to minimize the issue by virtue of creating a faux hierarchy. They need not be in competition; talk and act on them all.

The Attempt to Dismiss

The common #StickToSports catchphrase is essentially saying, “I tune in to sporting events to be entertained, not to hear your opinion.” Aside from containing a subtle condescending air toward athletes, it smacks a little of the entitled, “You’re violating my safe space” response I addressed in part 1. But I’d make a larger point: like it or not, sports is woven into the cultural fabric of American life, and as such, has always carried intersectional touchstones to other areas of life that transcend mere athletic achievement. Stories of courage and mental conviction, to overcoming adversity, to profound faith, to political provocation, to challenging racial and gender barriers, to breaking down international walls. The examples are beyond measure, from Jackie Robinson, to Eric Liddell, to the pioneers of Title IX, to soccer matches during the famous WWI Christmas Truce, to countless examples in the Olympics through the years… we could go on for days. Not everyone is a sports fan, but it’s hard to deny their power and relevance even if you’re not. And if we try to prevent sports from crossing any cultural boundaries outside the strict corral of physical athleticism alone (whether we agree that would be a good thing or not), that effort is going to fail. History has proven that’s just never going to happen. So we might as well just embrace the conversations it inevitably sparks, disagreements and all.

The Attempt to Discredit

The next tactic usually attacks the protestors themselves as not having earned the necessary credentials to have a voice in the debate. Here’s a common refrain: “They’re not oppressed! They’re overpaid millionaires who get paid to play a game.” Of course, many of those players have overcome various forms of discrimination on their road to stardom (some even more recently, as in the case of Michael Bennett), but even if that weren’t the case, why should that matter? They’re using their platform to bring awareness to a problem beyond just their own personal experience, advocating on behalf of those without as big a voice; so if they’re not oppressed themselves, then that makes it a selfless act.

Again, you can debate the legitimacy of the problem to which they’re drawing awareness separately, but let’s not pretend that their millionaire status precludes them from having a voice in this. They’ve worked hard to get where they are and I don’t begrudge them their money. Are they overpaid? Well, if you believe in the free market, then they’re paid exactly what they deserve as dictated by what the consumers of their entertainment are willing to spend, but we’ll save the economic lesson for another day. It’s just a red herring not germane to the discussion, anymore than a player’s level of on-field skill or whether or not they’re black enough, additional logical fallacies unnecessary to respond to separately.

The Attempt to Co-Opt

When all else fails, make it about something else. This is where the posturing comes in—a prime example being the narrative around the protestors being ungrateful for those who have fought and died for their freedom. Who, after all, would ever be justified in being ungrateful to those who have fought and died for their freedom? Never mind that the players have insisted they’re not ungrateful to those who have fought and died for their freedom—it matters not; in fact it makes the tactic all the more effective. You see, I just repeated the phrase 3 times, and it matters not whether some of those repetitions are explanatory clarifications or refutations—the repetition itself cements in the public eye that that’s what the issue is about. And thus you see how straw man arguments, even though a logical fallacy, can be annoyingly stubborn to counter.

The high-profile figures who employ these straw-man tactics typically care little about the issue itself, and more about rallying support to their tribe. Mike Pence’s staged walkout from the Colts-49ers game last week was an expensive PR stunt clearly meant to galvanize a partisan base that the administration had no doubt it would play well with. All politicians, right and left, do this, but we should recognize it as no more than capitalizing on the political theater of it. In reality, the issue should be independent of the right-left divide, but like everything else, it’s easier to herd the masses into the predictable trenches dug by those tribes than to promote thoughtful dialogue on the issue; the politicians play that game because we too often let them win at it.

The Attempt to Coerce

Far more concerning, however, were the president’s comments on the matter in the preceding weeks. Even if you’re adamantly opposed to the protestors and their cause, if we’re not equally bothered by the leader of the free world, who is sworn to defend and protect our constitution, endorsing punitive action against people exercising a constitutional right, we can’t really turn around and call ourselves patriotic.

This was a clear violation of conservative values in particular, but should transcend partisan divide. The liberty-minded take umbrage when the highest officer of the executive branch, the branch of government responsible for the enforcement of law, expresses an anti-free speech value. Even if he’s encouraging a private, non-government entity to do it (and therefore he hasn’t broken any law, as defenders have pointed out), it’s still an anti-free speech value, and I find that dangerous, because he’s the one sworn to protect those values. If he wants to express those opinions as a free citizen when he’s out of office, fine. There’s a higher accountability necessary for officers of the state on things like this.

That’s probably why even the conservative publication The National Review published an article leveling this same criticism against the president. And why certain NFL owners and others who had supported Trump chose to make a defiant statement against his weigh-in. It suddenly became about more than the anthem; it became about executive overreach, a repudiation of power they understand the government simply doesn’t have, and a clear statement that they won’t be bullied in such a fashion by an agent of the state. Liberty supersedes partisan loyalty, and true patriots will not tolerate government officials suggesting punitive action for constitutionally protected rights—period.

But more on this patriotism angle in my next post. Stay tuned for Part 3 in the coming days.

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