Hyland GS: This is about Tyre King

Op-Ed Contributor
Monday, September 19, 2016

This is about Tyre King, the unarmed black child Columbus, Ohio police killed last week. This is about Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old whose life Cleveland police ended. This is about Korryn Gaines, Sandra Bland, Natasha McKenna and Natisha Anderson. This is about Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, LaQuan McDonald, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. This is about the 190 black people killed by police in 2016.

When I refuse to stand during the national anthem at Saturday’s homecoming game, I will be doing so in solidarity with the athletes — professional and amateur, male and female, youth and adult — who are using their visible yet precarious platforms to resist police brutality and racial oppression.

This, the most recent, movement of resistance in sport began when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat (alone) during the national anthem for the San Francisco 49ers’ first three preseason games. In his responses to the questions that followed, Kaepernick offered a beautiful, powerful and succinct critique of superficial reverence for material objects like the American flag and placed himself alongside the countless unknown names fighting for the same justice: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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.”

Kaepernick recognizes that the unique position he occupies allows him to have his voice heard. Brown University’s athletes and students occupy a similarly privileged position, though to a different degree. Here Noam Chomsky tells us, “Privilege confers opportunity. Opportunity confers responsibility. Responsibility means dedication to questioning and challenging the things imposed on us by structural arrangements based on hierarchy — challenging and doing something about it. To the degree we have privilege, there’s more we can do.”

On the importance of student athletes’ actions — Brown and Harvard’s — in particular, Caroline Frank, associate director of the MA program in American studies wrote to me in an email, “Brown and Harvard produce the country’s next generation of leaders, especially the young men and women involved in athletics. It is vitally important that they leave the institution having a broad perspective on their place in our nationwide community. They should know that their action or inaction make(s) an impact beyond their comfortable sphere.”

Sept. 1, Kaepernick was joined by teammate Eric Reid, this time taking a knee. Since that time 12 NFL players have followed, kneeling or raising a fist — a salute to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s protest at the medal ceremony of the 1968 Olympic Games — during the anthem. Athletes all over the country quickly joined them. Sept. 15, soccer player Megan Rapinoe became the first professional athlete to protest during the anthem while wearing a U.S. jersey — Rapinoe is also the only white professional athlete to share the burden her black peers are carrying, an issue in itself. Perhaps most remarkable are the youth and high school athletes standing with their black brothers and sisters by kneeling, in spite of being called racial slurs and receiving death threats. When recently questioned whether the protests would continue as other sports begin their season, the NBA’s Iman Shumpert prophesied, “You best believe I’m going to take me a knee for the anthem.”

To those concerned that such action is unpatriotic, I ask: Should American patriotism not be measured by the extent to which its citizens fight to uphold the ideals put forth in our nation’s founding document? Is it not unpatriotic, then, to oppress and condemn those who do so?

I understand the temptation to argue that this is disrespectful to American military personnel. To this, I have two responses. I am sure I am not the only one who sees the irony of espousing ideas of freedom of expression and protest (because of the action of our military), only to then disparage those who choose to exercise that very freedom of expression and protest. At that point you’re not concerned with freedom of expression and protest, generally; you’re only concerned with a certain kind of expression, one that reinforces state authority and your own ideology. Secondly, it is useful to review the history of the phrase “support our troops.” The phrase, I think, is both nefarious and meaningless. That I may disagree with the rationale for their deployment does not mean I can not and do not love and respect those put into harm’s way — I can and frequently do occupy both of those spaces. The term, though, has historically been used by the state as a means to effectively eliminate questions of state action. When the state says, “support our troops,” what it means is, “support our (foreign and domestic) policy.” Once someone does question state policy, he or she is immediately attacked for not “supporting our troops.” In fact, it is unpatriotic and dangerous to blindly support state policy, policy that will unnecessarily put those troops in deadly situations.

Recently, many veterans have begun mobilizing to show their support for Kaepernick, recognizing that opposing police brutality and supporting veterans are not mutually exclusive ideas. For a time, #veteransforkaepernick was Twitter’s top trending hashtag. The history of the Star Spangled Banner itself tells us it was not meant to be inclusive of black people — “the hireling or the slave,” as Francis Scott Key (a slave owner himself) put it in his third stanza.

Though remarkable and beautiful to watch, the sedition of these athletes is not novel. They are following in the footsteps of giants in a history of athletic subversion, a history that is too great to go into much detail here; though, I would be remiss if I silenced the names of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. People should find sports journalist Dave Zirin’s book “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” for a full accounting of the hidden history of athletes who used their platform to speak out. Should Brown or Harvard’s players or coaches choose to use their positions of privilege to speak for, and stand with, the voiceless and oppressed, they would be placing themselves among intercollegiate athletics’ own remarkable history of revolt. 

When, in 2003, basketball player Toni Smith — of Division III’s Manhattanville College — turned her back to the flag during the national anthem, she did so at the beginning of U.S. aggression in Iraq, a time when the line between jingoism and official state religion had become blurred. Smith explained her reasoning, saying, “A lot of people blindly stand up and salute the flag, but I feel that blindly facing the flag hurts more people. There are a lot of inequities in this country, and these are issues that need to be acknowledged.”

Sept. 16, Terrence Cutcher’s car broke down in my hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma. A few minutes later he was dead — shot by police. Crutcher was unarmed; Crutcher was black. As of this writing, it appears he did not break any laws. This is why athletes are refusing to stand for the national anthem. There are bodies in the streets and people getting away with murder. This is why I invite Brown and Harvard’s players, coaches, students and all those concerned with the terrifying disregard for black lives to join, as well.

Sean Hyland GS would like to thank Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, who helped him edit this piece. Hyland can be reached at sean_hyland@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds toopinions@browndailyherald.com.


  1. When you refuse to stand during the national anthem at Saturday’s homecoming game, are you showing solidarity with the athletes at that game? Are you encouraging Brown’s athletes to follow you? Are you following the BLM Missouri protest strategy and trying to leverage Ivy League football as a political tool? Are you showing solidarity with professional athletes? Are you showing solidarity with historical figures?

    Please clarify, because statistics about the rate of police shootings of black people don’t support BLM’s hype or your hyperbolic claim that, “there are bodies in the streets and people are getting away with murder.”

    Signalling your social justice credentials to everyone will only get you so far in graduate school.

    (Harvard economist Roland Fryer has studied this topic thoroughly. His research (07/2016) concludes that other, more subtle dynamics are indeed at play during police encounters with black civilians, but the picture you draw of a disproportionate rate of shootings of black people by police doesn’t reflect the reality of American society.)

  2. Man with Axe says:

    It is disingenuous to conflate justifiable shootings with those which are unjustifiable, just for the purpose of making the real problem of unjustifiable police shootings of unarmed blacks much worse than it is.

    How many of the 190 were justifiable shootings?

    Is the whole story of Tyre King simply that he was an “unarmed black child,” or was he committing “armed” robberies with a BB gun that looked like a real gun, a weapon that he pulled on police who were chasing him?

    Do you accept Eric Holder’s justice department exoneration of Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown shooting?

    Your essay would command greater respect if you kept to the issue of which your are complaining, without making it into something of a greater magnitude than it really is.

  3. I support Mr Hyland, and any protest against the violence and discrimination in our society. But these issues that so many of us are outraged by – the injustice and inequality, the unfair practises that take place each and every day – are not going to be resolved sitting during the national anthem, nor posting a diatribe on your facebook page, commiserating with some song you hear, or writing a commentary at the bottom of an article.
    The system in this country is broken – elections are questioned and questionable, special interest groups and lobbyists – and more specifically $$$ – drive the major decisions. Politicians care about two things – getting elected and getting re-elected, and basic human concern seems to be secondary to them. The result is a congress so partisan, so unwilling to compromise that nothing gets accomplished. This leads to law enforcement agencies like Ferguson – that are woefully segregated and detached from the citizens they are sworn to protect, and an economic divide that pits Americans against each other. Police and citizens should be friends, and politicians should be reinforcing this mindset.
    People say this is the greatest country in the world – yet we have homeless, people starving, children without health care, and leadership that doesn’t act, and only expresses interest when strong-armed by current events.
    So yes, sit down for the national anthem – go have a beer or a hot dog. Wear a shirt that proclaims whatever issue it is you speak out against. Just like the horrific shootings in Orlando, or Newtown, or Colorado Springs, or Charleston…just as with the tragic events detailed by Mr Hyland in his first paragraph of this thought provoking piece – there will be outrage and protest and cries for change, then it will dissipate until the next incident.
    Every life matters, every protest counts, every life lost is felt by a loved one. We need to come together as human beings to find common ground and understanding – but that hope is a runaway train in the political minutia of this country. I don’t know how to stop it. I just know it saddens me.

  4. Why not protest the death of Osama Bin Laden too? He was a person of color?

  5. Christopher M. says:

    I appreciate your opinion, and agree with much of it. As a veteran, I support anyone’s right to sit, stand, or sleep during the National Anthem. I’ve fought for your right to do so. However, know that I might think less of you for using that method to raise awareness rather than something more constructive.

    But it is the below quote that I wish to address:

    “I am sure I am not the only one who sees the irony of espousing ideas of freedom of expression and protest (because of the action of our military), only to then disparage those who choose to exercise that very freedom of expression and protest. At that point you’re not concerned with freedom of expression and protest, generally; you’re only concerned with a certain kind of expression, one that reinforces state authority and your own ideology.”

    I seem to recall, in reading the BDH, events where the left-leaning crowd took matters into their own hands and decided that freedom of expression (or, in fact, opinion) was not to be permitted because it was not a viewpoint that they agreed with. The Ray Kelly incident comes to mind.

    Free speech comes in many forms. Sit down during the National Anthem – that is your right (even if I don’t agree). But allow others the same courtesy – do not stifle free speech that is contrary to your viewpoint.

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