After taking the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos shocked the world — the two Olympians held up black gloved fists for the entire anthem.
When Colin Kaepernick, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback, decided last year to kneel for the national anthem, the Olympic protest suddenly became relevant again.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said, referencing the numerous innocent, unarmed black Americans gunned down by police officers who often faced no recourse for their actions.
Many other athletes followed suit, but the issue didn’t heat up until last week, when President Donald Trump decided to offer his opinion.
“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired! He’s fired!” he said of players like Kaepernick at an Alabama rally. NFL players responded on Sunday with widespread kneeling, locking arms — and in the case of the Steelers, standing off the field for the anthem.
These protests set off an eruption of outrage across America. Former judge Jeanine Pirro delivered an impassioned tirade, ranting about how NFL players are disrespecting our country, disrespecting our flag and disrespecting our nation — one that has provided so much for them. Many Americans share this belief, but this begs the question — how much has America actually provided them?
Our country disrespects black Americans, and thus black NFL players are justified in protesting our anthem.
When Smith and Carlos raised their fists in 1968, Americans were horrified. Time magazine wrote “‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ is the motto of the Olympic Games. ‘Angrier, nastier, uglier’ better describes the scene in Mexico City last week.”
The crowd booed Smith and Carlos, and the U.S. Olympic team suspended them and expelled them from the games. But this is the price that is paid for trying to change the status quo, and the NFL players who kneeled last weekend received much of the same treatment.
But even if kneeling for the national anthem is an overt sign of disrespect for America, Americans should not condemn athletes for doing so. As a nation, we’ve come to expect headlines of police officers murdering unarmed black people. The Guardian found that in 2015, 32 percent of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, compared to 25 percent of Hispanic and Latino people and 15 percent of white people.
Perhaps more important than statistics, we are merely a few clicks away from countless videos of police officers killing black civilians who put them in no danger. We should have no expectation that African-Americans would respect a country that systematically puts their lives in danger.
But the protests also highlight other issues NFL players face, namely when it comes to their relationship with their employer, the NFL. The game is incredibly dangerous, and the lack of guaranteed contracts enables teams to push players past their limits and then throw them away.
It’s a common misconception that professional athletes will be financially comfortable for the rest of their lives. A vast majority of NFL players, including the 29 non-starters on each team, are usually paid the minimum salary of $465,000 in their first year. It may seem like a large sum, but the average career in the NFl is a mere 3.3 years.
The NFL also has a salary cap of $167 million for their 53 man roster. This prevents players from getting their worth on the open market, and a draft — not their choices — dictates where they will play in the prime of their career. This is the antithesis of capitalism — valuable workers being forced to work in a location for less than their value on the open market. And further than that, there’s no workers’ compensation or guaranteed contracts. When a player gets injured, the team will often just cut him.
Despite the prevalence in the NFL of career-ending injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a serious brain disease causing severe aggression and dementia that has led to multiple player suicides, Trump offered his disapproval of efforts to improve player safety at his Alabama rally last week.
“If you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game. They had that last week, I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom! 15 yards. The referee goes on television, his wife’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game.”
These are people’s lives at stake and Trump shows no respect. Not for their safety, not for their cause and certainly not for their form of protest. But in our country, where unarmed African-Americans are murdered and brutalized regularly by police, our president has no room to infringe on citizens’ First Amendment rights. It’s not just anti-Kaepernick, or anti-NFL — it’s anti-American.