By Jake Darling
These twitter screenshots are only some of the reactions on social media over the last few weeks regarding professional athletes kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at sporting events. Influential figures, most notably President Donald Trump, have taken to social media in order to express their opinions on the matter.
These protests started when (now former) San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to sit during the 2016 pre-season. However, his actions were not covered until the third game of the pre-season. In an article published at the time in The New York Times, Kaepernick was quoted as saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” and “to me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” Kaepernick also talked about different events that influenced his decision to sit, and eventually kneel, such as an article in the New York Daily News about how Arizona high school students were forced to remove their Black Lives Matter t-shirts at school. This is only one example of the events which led to Kaepernick kneeling. On the official NFL website, Kaepernick is quoted saying, “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” in reference to a number of police brutality cases, including those of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Philando Castile.
The movement Kaepernick started has grown beyond the NFL. Professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe, the entire WNBA team Indiana Fever, members of the East Carolina University band, singer Leah Tysse, and many others have to knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick and for what they believe in.
The controversy recently got more attention, and more players have become involved, due to President Donald Trump’s publicly voiced ideas on the matter. On Friday, Sept. 22nd, Trump was in Alabama at a rally, endorsing a Republican candidate for senate. In his speech, he said, in reference to kneeling players, that NFL team owners should “Get that son of a b***h off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!” This comment sparked a reply from New England Patriots CEO and Chairman (and friend of Trump) Robert Kraft. This response then led to a chain reaction of responses from other teams that weekend, including the Colts, the Jaguars, and others. These actions have prompted debate online and in the media about the meanings and messages of the protests, including the popularity of hashtags such as #StandForOurAnthem and #TakeAKneeNFL.
Another notable story to come out of the past weeks is that of Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Pictures of Villanueva, a US Army veteran, standing alone during the anthem before the Steelers’ game at Chicago on Sunday, Sept. 24 initially flooded news outlets, which claiming he was acting rogue, against the team’s wishes. In his own words, however, he says that “Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed.”
The original plan was for all Steelers players to remain in the locker room during the anthem and come out afterwards. However, Villanueva had been talking to team captains Ben Roethlisberger and Cameron Heyward about how he felt bad staying in the locker room, and if he and the captains could go and at least stand in the tunnel. They were in agreement that staying in the tunnel would be an acceptable alternative. However, due to a miscommunication before the anthem, Villanueva ended up standing alone outside the tunnel. He has stated several times that he takes ownership of the situation, saying he “made coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only,” and “I made my teammates look bad.”
Statements and actions from various players, celebrities, NFL owners, and President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence continue to dominate the debate about players’ protests. This past Sunday, Oct. 8, Pence left an Indianapolis Colts game early when several players from the opposing 49ers team knelt during the anthem. The White House released a statement from Pence, which stated, in part: “I left today’s Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.”