The NFL Takes a Knee: Freedom of Expression or Act of Disrespect?

In American Football, the offensive team will take a knee when there is under 40 seconds left on the game clock to preserve a victory. “Taking the knee” sometimes referred to as the “Quarterback kneel” is also a sign of sportsmanship. By running down the clock, the offensive team uses up its opportunity to score more points.

The National Football League or NFL is the home of professional American football. At 67,591 spectators per game, it boasts of having the largest average attendance of any professional sports league in the world. Its annual championship, “The Superbowl” brings in billions of dollars in advertising revenue. One of its 32 professional teams, the Dallas Cowboys has been labelled “America’s Team”.

However in the last two years, the NFL has seen itself transition from America’s favourite pastime to a political soap box.

And it all started with a Quarterback kneel.

In 2016, San Francisco 49’ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand during the American national anthem. It was an act that was widely despised by NFL fans, players and team owners. Kaepernick’s protest overshadowed the games themselves.

As fans and players increasingly voiced their disapproval of Kaepernick’s refusal to stand, the Quarterback changed his position.

He took a knee.

Kaepernick believed America was not doing enough to protect the rights of African-Americans:

“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 streets and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

At the end of the NFL season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract to test free agency. When the 2017 season started, Kaepernick remained unemployed.

Prior to the start of the 2017 season, more people started to rally behind Kaepernick. Supporters included film director Spike Lee, NBA player Stephen Curry and fellow NFL Quarterbacks Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers.

They felt Kaepernick’s continued unemployment was a business decision and nothing to do with his ability to play Quarterback. In 2016, Kaepernick threw for 2,241 yards, 16 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions and had the 17th highest Quarterback rating at 90.7%.

More players started to kneel during the national anthem in support of Kaepernick. Lee and groups from the military held rallies to get the embattled Quarterback back in the NFL.

During a campaign rally for U.S. Senator Luther Strange in Alabama, President Donald J. Trump fed up with the kneeling players ripped into the NFL with a scathing speech:

“We’re proud of our country, we respect our flag. Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now! Out! He’s fired! He’s fired!’”

That statement set off a firestorm in social media. NFL Players and owners took a united front to defend a perceived attack on their freedom to speak and express themselves. Teams collectively kneeled before the national anthem. Some stood up and held arms.

The Dallas Cowboys with owner Jerry Jones took to midfield, knelt before the National Anthem was played and stood up together with arms locked as if trying to find a middle ground between protest and respect.

The situation will only get worse before it gets any better. With advertising dollars at stake, television ratings are down. President Trump will continue his attacks and the number of protesters will rise.

But is the act of kneeling during the national anthem an exercise of freedom of expression or an act of disrespect?

The flag of any nation is not just for the military service men and women who died protecting life and liberty. It stands for all of its citizens. Free speech for all citizens is one of the liberties the military fights to defend.

This is the same right to free speech that was exercised by White Supremacists who rallied in Charleston and Houston.

President Trump advocates the doctrine of Principled Realism, a nationalist ideology that seeks to champion the best interests of America without compromising its values.

When applied to foreign policy, it’s providing assistance to the international community without imposing America’s beliefs to the country’s sovereignty.

The right to express oneself is a manifestation of personal sovereignty. What could be more oppressive than to tell someone not to exercise it?

Nationalism is all about love of country; what citizens can do to make it better, putting the interests of the nation ahead of others. These protests are more about the concept of patriotism than nationalism. It is definitely unpatriotic not to show respect to the flag.

Perhaps there are better ways to express one’s opinions on social injustice rather taking the knee.

Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James has used social media and high profile events to voice his concerns for discrimination against people of color. People are more receptive and no one has accused James of disrespecting America.