Athletes taking a knee should be supported in their fight for free speech and racial justice

When my son, who works for a Canadian professional football team, texted me to get my thoughts about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, I wrote him the following response:

It’s a political issue making a political statement, of course, but then, it always was a political issue – taking a knee because of inherent racism in the US that is not being addressed by the current administration. Now it is even more specifically political: it is not just about racism and a president whose stance condones or implicitly supports racism, given his feeble attempt to respond to neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville. Now it is also a specific reaction against a president who has made it clear that those who speak out against racism should be penalized. It is speaking out against an abuse of authority and privilege, when the highest authority in the land takes it into his own hands (literally, on his phone) to tweet out a knee-jerk reaction against a political stance because he feels threatened by it.

It is one thing to speak back, to express disagreement (and at an academic institution, I endorse open, free, civil discourse to ensure ideas are exchanged and the worthy ones survive). It is another to express such hostile views by expressing the idea that people with different ideas should lose their jobs. Taking a knee is now about the freedom to speak up and be counted. That’s why white players can take a knee in solidarity, because the president has tweeted out that players should be fired for this insubordination. They are reacting not only to ongoing systemic racism, but also to the president’s “interference” in free speech, highlighting his lack of concern for racism. Several years ago, he tweeted out that Obama should focus on the “more important” aspects of his job instead of addressing the Washington Redskins’ name controversy. Apparently, even in the face of the brutal impact of two hurricanes in Puerto Rico and increasing hostilities that threaten nuclear missile attack by North Korea, Trump doesn’t have more important things to do than to use his bully pulpit in an attempt to intimidate black players in the NFL – or perhaps it is just an attempt to divert attention from further travel restrictions from a few more Muslim-majority nations.

But addressing inherent and ingrained racism (in the Redskins’ name and against black people by police forces) is something that is important and should be addressed, and that’s what these players are saying – in a league where about 70 per cent of the players are black, and less than 14 per cent of the American population is, I support their action of kneeling, maybe even at every game, bringing shame to the presidency and attention to the injustices not yet corrected. They should be encouraging fans, and players in other sports, to kneel.

Taking a knee is thus a profoundly political statement that says justice must be done so that when the nation sings “o’er the land of the free” all people can believe that they are, in fact, free – free from racism, fear of persecution, fear of injustice, fear of being treated like second-class citizens. I think that the president’s empty threat has encouraged and emboldened people to speak up or kneel down, whereas before they might not have done so. In fact, with Trump’s implicit racism inherent in his presidency, he may do more, inadvertently, for the cause of civil rights because of the backlash he is generating. Good for those who kneel, I say – and perhaps soon more will join them.

I for one hope that the league will get behind the players and their right to kneel; after all, it is “the land of the free, home of the brave,” and players are free to kneel. Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling first, and who subsequently has not been signed, may be among the bravest.

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