Attempting to straddle the fence between outright disrespect, like that Colin Kaepernick and Marshawn Lynch have shown during the national anthem, and peevish petulance, like that shown by Malcolm Jenkins, Steven Means, and Ron Brooks raising their fists in homage to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, twelve Cleveland Browns knelt in prayer during the second week of the 2017 NFL preseason.
This ring of dishonor was attended by running backs Duke Johnson Jr. and Terrence Magee, safeties Peppers and Calvin Pryor, cornerback Jamar Taylor, tight end Seth DeValve, wide receivers Kenny Britt and Ricardo Louis, linebackers Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins, and running backs Isaiah Crowell and Brandon Wilds. The protest, which was cloaked in piety rather than brazen defiance, was nevertheless another stunt that did more to draw attention to the players themselves than it did to promote minority solidarity in the face of systemic discrimination. In that way the players could consume what little relevance they commanded in their likely short NFL careers in an attempt to shoulder their way into the national conversation, attempting to seize their 15 minutes of fame.
As this blog has previously noted, there is nothing courageous about failing to respect the national anthem. “Courage” is a term that should be reserved for a firefighter running into a burning building, or a soldier rushing a machine gun position. Rather, disrespecting the national anthem is more an act of profound selfishness–an anarchic lash-out like spray painting the Lincoln Memorial in offensive graffiti. It is an act that encourages the viewer to look and talk about the perpetrator without regard to their failures or accomplishments. It is a naked attempt to leverage divisiveness for personal exposure.
Former Cleveland Browns great and NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, himself no shrinking violet when it comes to minority rights, drew a hard line between appropriate protest and tone-deaf disrespect. “I don’t desecrate my flag and my national anthem…if you have a cause, I think you should organize it, present it in a manner where it’s not only you standing or sitting on one knee but a lot of people that is gonna get behind each other and do something about it.” Brown also pointed out the realities of professional football. “Football is commercial. You have owners. You have fans. And you want to honor that if you’re making that kind of money.”
There is a price to be paid for vanity. Kaepernick quickly found, despite his DJ girlfriend Nessa Diab’s patronizing whispering into his ear, that he was no Mohammad Ali–a personality that could spit in the face of national unity and still get booked to boxing matches because of his talent and entertainment value. In fact it has been apparent that there are so few athletes that can follow Ali’s footsteps (Lynch may prove to be one), it makes one wonder how egotistical an athlete has to be in order to consider a path such as this when there are so many other ways to express dismay with minority treatment.
Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson was considerably annoyed by his players’ stunt, particularly given it was done after he warned that he disapproved of that form of protest. Afterwards he said the right things, among which was that he supported his players’ right to protest in any manner that they saw fit. But his pained facial expression said it all. It was the same expression all the rest of us are wearing while we watch high-paid and spoiled young athletes squawk like roosters.
This post was updated on 8/25/17.
9/4/17 update: First responder unions in Cleveland expressed their displeasure with the Browns management and its kneeling players by boycotting the 2017 season opening pre-game flag ceremony.