Commentary: Focus on real issue behind NFL protests: racial injustice

Editor’s note: A version of this column originally appeared in The Palm Beach Post’s Opinion Zone blog on Sept. 28.

UPDATE: In the weeks following the blog post, discussion has increasingly returned to the original reason for the anthem protests — calling attention to racial injustice, and a rash police shootings of unarmed black men.

For example, this past week, National Football League owners held talks with representatives of the NFL Players Association to discuss how to deal with issues surrounding the ongoing player protests during the national anthem before the start of games.

After a Tuesday meeting of 11 team owners and 13 players in New York City, the NFL said it was a “productive” session and both sides will continue to work together to find a way forward. It didn’t sound like any formal decisions had been made over protests, but the league has already said it would like to move past protesting during the anthem and find a way to promote players’ work in their respective communities.

That is progress. But perhaps the most interesting take-away in the aftermath of the meeting was the potential inclusion going forward of the man who started the controversy: Colin Kaepernick.

The players apparently wanted him there, but Kaepernick was not officially invited by the NFL.

That may have something to do with the collusion grievance Kaepernick filed against the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement two days prior to Tuesday’s meeting. But if Kaepernick does end up at a future meeting, it could change the entire narrative around the protests, the league’s solutions going forward and maybe even his own grievance.

No doubt, there is still a lot of work to be done to move our country along on this issue. But that won’t happen as long as folks insist on wrapping this in a “faux patriotism” rather confronting the real issue.


Arguably, the most disappointing thing about the amped-up debate over National Football League players taking a knee during the national anthem is the subject of the debate.

Thousands of American citizens, and not just NFL fans, are taking the time to let it be known that they are offended by players disrespecting the anthem and the nation’s flag by kneeling when the anthem is played ahead of a game.

Players and those who support them are being castigated as unpatriotic and disrespectful to our U.S. military. The same military that defends the very freedom of speech they are exercising. And, yes, I know the last part sounds hypocritical.

But more importantly, patriotism had nothing to do with the original intent of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s reason for at first sitting on the bench, and later kneeling during the “Star Spangled Banner.”

To be sure, many of the high school, college and NFL players who are taking a knee during the anthem are doing so mainly in support of Kaepernick, not to highlight the issue of racial injustice and police shootings. For NFL players, in particular, last Sunday’s broad defiance had more to do with defending themselves — and the league — from President Donald J. Trump than calling attention to racial injustice.

RELATED: Trump: ‘Not enough action’ from NFL over anthem protests

But the president’s comments and tweets fired up the feelings of many Americans who’ve regarded Kaepernick’s protests as an increasingly annoying distraction.

That was reflected in the Post’s Letters to the Editor on Thursday. For example:

Unpatriotic players can count me out

The unpatriotic behavior of football players who have been exposed to brain trauma playing the game is understandable. Condoning this behavior by Miami Dolphins team owner Stephen Ross is not.

This pathetic patronage to players will only accelerate the already declining viewership of NFL fans. I am proud to count myself as a patriotic former fan.


Lest we forget, however, Kaepernick declined to stand during the anthem last NFL season to draw attention to our nation’s intractable issue of racial injustice. He acted when there seemed to be a rash of shootings (some fatal) of unarmed black men by law enforcement officers around the country.

You may remember that we had one such tragedy right here in Palm Beach County involving former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja, and a Delray Beach Housing Department employee and part-time drummer named Corey Jones. The 31-year-old Jones is dead after Raja pumped six bullets into him. Raja is now headed to trial on, among other things, attempted first-degree murder charges.

You may remember also, at the time, that a number of law-enforcement officers involved in these shootings around the country were either not being prosecuted, or not being convicted.

Kaepernick, riding a wave of popularity after taking the 49ers to the Super Bowl, was frustrated by this perceived injustice and the lack of discussion in our communities that he believed could help bring an end to it all.

Sure, many Americans know racism and racial inequality exist in this country, but talking about it is a whole other issue. It’s either not their problem because they’re not racist, or black people need to stop complaining and appreciate the fact they live in a great country.

To bring attention to this lack of will to talk about race, Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem for a country that would allow any of its citizens to be treated this way. He believed, strongly, that we needed to talk about it.

Was it the best venue for a protest? That’s certainly debatable.

But that shouldn’t be the crux of the debate. From Kaepernick’s standpoint, what good would another press conference do? Who would listen? Wouldn’t most folks be tempted to write him off as just another privileged, million-dollar black athlete who lives better than 90 percent of the people in this country? So who would care?

Because he chose this venue and the national anthem, however, rather than seize on the difficult issue of racial inequality, detractors took the opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag and patriotism.

When President Trump went on his rant at an Alabama rally last week saying “get that son of a b—— off the field” if an NFL player kneels during the anthem, Kaepernick’s concern about racial injustice never passed the president’s lips. For Trump, it was allegedly all about disrespecting the flag and our troops. (Yes, this coming from a man who sought, and got five waivers to avoid serving during the Vietnam War.)

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast also weighed in on Facebook criticizing NFL players who kneel in a show of solidarity for Kaepernick. Mast, a Stuart Republican, lost both of his legs while serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

Again, no mention of racial injustice.

RELATED: Rep. Brian Mast: NFL anthem kneelers ‘should already be gone’

I have a sister who is a Marine Corps veteran. I have a brother who is an Army veteran.

I have three uncles who are Army vets; two of them Purple Heart recipients. I also have two uncles who are Navy vets, and a father who is a 20-year Air Force vet. All were poor black kids from the wrong side of the tracks in Stuart, who served their country honorably during, and after the Vietnam War.

And I have numerous other relatives who have served, or are still serving in different branches of our military.

I don’t know one who agrees with Mast and Trump.

Maybe because they haven’t lost sight of what Kaepernick’s protest was really about.

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