The just-completed 2017 NFL season crowned a new champion after a season where player protests over the country’s racial inequities and injustices, by either taking a knee or raising a closed fist in the air during the national anthem, took place as well.
A January 30 panel discussion during Super Bowl week at the University of Minnesota asked if the NFL players rightly exercised their constitutional rights or violated their player conduct contracts by protesting. The answer came by way of three different perspectives at the school’s Andersen Library — from a Black veteran, a White sociologist and a White conservative.
Minnesota’s Humphrey School Professor Larry Jacobs moderated “Betrayal or a Right? The NFL National Anthem Protests,” which focused on the “fiery cultural debate” that took place all season long. That debate included the current White House occupant who sent out at least two dozen anti-player protest tweets, noted the professor and Center for the Study of Politics and Governance director.
Panelist Frank White served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam years. The St. Paul native told the mostly White audience that he fully supported Colin Kaepernick’s pre-game protest at a 2016 NFL preseason contest that sparked further protests, outrage and criticism and eventually led to his apparent banishment from the league as a result.
“He did this at a personal sacrifice,” said White. “How many people in this country would stand up for something you believe in at the sake of losing your job? It wasn’t about disrespecting the flag.”
Scott Johnson, a Minneapolis attorney and blogger, argued that the players have the right to protest but not during the anthem. “The national anthem is a time-honored [ritual],” Johnson told the audience. “I wish it would be kept that way.”
Johnson told me later, “I support their right to say what they have to say. I just think the national anthem is not the way to say it.”
Doug Hartmann, the U of M sociology department chair and author of a 2003 book, Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete, noted, “I think there are a lot of Americans who have that kind of response,” but he added that opinions oftentimes were split down racial lines. “Black folk tend to support protests because they saw it as a moral stand, whereas White folk saw it as disrespectful. What counts as protest and what doesn’t is the issue here,” said the professor.
We earlier got a fourth perspective from two Black NFL players. “It’s been pretty cool for us as players to exercise and use our voice,” New England safety Devin McCourty told the MSR during the February 4 Super Bowl media night in St. Paul.
Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins added, “Before I raised my fist, I had conversations” with police officers. “After the protest we talked with legislators about changing laws. There was a need for us to protest and make our voices heard.”
Both players are part of the NFL’s Let’s Listen Together, a new initiative to further engagement efforts among players, owners, law enforcement and civic groups to improve communities around the country. Jenkins met with a Pennsylvania police chief and discussed police-community relations, and McCourty and other Patriots players met with community folk and elected officials at Harvard to discuss systemic racism in education and criminal justice.
Jenkins and McCourty both said they believe the protests helped educate both the league and fans on social justice issues. “The league can play a real role in changing this country,” Jenkins said.
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