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 email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds email@example.com.