Closson: When athletes kneel during national anthem, understand greater significance

Troy Closson, Opinion Editor

As almost everyone’s heard by now, President Donald Trump lashed out this weekend after Stephen Curry said he’d vote against a Warriors team visit to the White House — which erupted into a large-scale ordeal as NFL athletes resumed kneeling during the national anthem and per usual, Trump lashed out on Twitter.

Trump’s comments and professional athletes’ responses received widespread coverage, but some people have confused what this is really about.

This isn’t a sports issue that just happens to primarily involve black athletes.

It’s a race-related issue given a platform by sports. This is about black athletes not “staying in their lane” and sticking to sports.

Let’s remember, conversations about kneeling during the national anthem didn’t begin from nowhere this weekend, but rather, over a year ago as Colin Kaepernick stayed seated during the national anthem, protesting police mistreatment of people of color. And when he did so last NFL season, he was largely vilified by both liberal and conservative media outlets, critiqued and called a “traitor” by NFL executives and condemned by other professional athletes. A few weeks later, he was voted most disliked player in the NFL.

Speaking out eventually cost Kaepernick a return to the NFL as he was seemingly used to dissuade other athletes from making similar social statements.

Yet now, by and large, professional athletes are strongly pushing back on Trump’s suggestion that players who protest the anthem should be fired, and many league owners and executives have defended players’ right to kneel.

So what’s the difference? Has Donald Trump just made the idea of protesting more attractive?

The difference, in my opinion, is that this started with Curry — an athlete who virtually no one could argue is expendable — whereas Kaepernick was someone who could be used to warn other players. Maybe now other NFL players and professional athletes feel secure enough to follow Kaepernick’s lead as Trump’s presidency continues to highlight existing social issues.

Most college football players won’t have the choice of kneeling during the national anthem as teams already routinely stay in their locker rooms while it’s played. If any Northwestern athletes choose to kneel or protest in other ways during the national anthem, however, I hope NU administrators, coaches, teammates and fans respect their actions and acknowledge the significance of what they’re doing — or at the very least understand it’s within their rights to do so.

While officials in the NFL and NBA — two majority-black leagues — have largely supported players’ right to kneel during the anthem, players and officials in leagues with smaller minority representation — such as NASCAR — have primarily remained silent or criticized kneeling. Amid Trump’s assailment of Curry and other athletes, the Pittsburgh Penguins chose to accept his invitation to the White House, saying political disagreements can be expressed through other means.

Obviously that’s true, but it feels like they’re missing the point. Trump arguably hasn’t visibly targeted black people as much as other target identity groups — both during his campaign and his time in office. But he was initially hesitant to denounce former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s support. Throughout his campaign, he often seemed to only equate being black with poverty, violence and inner cities — Chicago his favorite example. And this summer, he initially said “many sides” were to blame for white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, instead of tackling the issue head-on.

In contrast, Trump unleashed a storm of tweets at Stephen Curry and NFL players this past weekend — the distinction being that they’re primarily black men.

Kneeling during the national anthem isn’t meant to be disrespectful to veterans or anyone else who’s fought for the rights of people in this country. It’s meant to stand against the challenge to those rights presented by Trump, among others. It’s not childish, immature, petty or whatever else Tomi Lahren and other critics want to argue. In fact it’s the opposite, and hopefully University officials see that if NU athletes choose to kneel as well.

Troy Closson is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.