When the NFL announced it will hereafter force players to stand for the national anthem, it was clear the league was attempting to salvage its damaged public image in the wake of the players’ refusal to show respect to the country. By choosing to make standing for the anthem a matter of coercion rather than a voluntary act of patriotism, it (quite wrongly) suggests that NFL executives and the kneeling movement’s many malcontents in the country are unable to provide a coherent reason why America is worth honoring in spite of its flaws. Worse, it furthers the very narrative that drives protests like Kaepernick: The established authorities are afraid of the message they bear, and it is the established authorities' ill-reception of this message that perpetuates the "systemic racism" that threatens the lives of black men in America.
The anthem-kneeling protest began, of course, with Colin Kaepernick. A self-styled disciple of Malcolm X, he has offered bumbling praise for the murderous Fidel Castro and worn socks depicting police officers as pigs. Kaepernick’s anthem-kneeling was meant to highlight his perception of American law enforcement as systemically lethal in their handling of black suspects. Putting aside the statistical realities for a moment, Kaepernick’s central contention was that he is “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” And while there are plenty of well-meaning and sincere players who have taken action on related issues, the radical flavor of the movement’s claims is unmistakable. It’s worth acknowledging that modern aggrievement politics are fueled, in large measure, by the appearance of aggrievement. And the NFL just gave the kneelers ammo.
The reaction to this has been largely what one would expect. Overwrought rhetoric abounds for a policy that, as ESPN anchor Mike Greenberg points out, is less stringent than the NBA’s. The left-wing sports blogosphere, a large contingent of the sports journalism market comprised of overtly political sports sites like Deadspin, has been apoplectic since the release of this decision.
What has been unfortunately lost is an actual debate about the merits of the protest itself: Are American police systemically murdering black people at a disproportionate rate? If not, should that matter in whether one chooses to abstain from honoring the flag? Does the statistical fact that black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to be the victims of low-level force by police provide a prima facie justification for this protest? At root, is America a country falling so systemically short of its founding ideals that it isn’t worth standing for its anthem? Or, as some on the left would contend, are the principles of individual liberty and personal freedom so anathema to the implementation of a socialist utopia that the principles themselves aren’t worth standing for?
There are legitimate debates to be had about disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system, but those debates cannot lose sight of the statistical reality that the narrative upon which this entire kneeling movement rests -- that blacks are disproportionately slain by a racist police force -- has been thoroughly contradicted by a comprehensive study from Harvard University. The fact remains that protest, even what some on the right would see as misguided protest, is a legitimate expression of the sentiment of free speech in our founding documents. But by allowing for the appearance of top-down silencing, Goodell and the owners have given the outrage industry its primary currency: something to be outraged about.