Jeffrey Scholes is associate professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and the director of the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is the author of Vocation and the Politics of Work: Popular Theology in a Consumer Culture (2013) and co-author of Religion and Sports in American Culture (2014).
Colin Kaepernick’s sitting and later kneeling for the national anthem to start the 2016 NFL season harkens back to the athlete activism of the 1960s. This was typified by Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War and Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising a black-gloved fist at the 1968 Olympics. But Kaepernick’s protest, while similar to its predecessors in that racial injustice is its raison d’être, took place after the “greenwashed” era of Michael Jordan, within a team context, and within a league that is notoriously hostile to athlete activism. The NFL has been the most hyper-militaristic (it took money from the Department of Defense to promote American military efforts for over a decade) and authoritarian in its handling of players of this country’s sports leagues. This is a fact that makes Kaepernick’s kneeling all the more striking. The combination of President Trump’s statements against football players who kneel with stated concern of corporate sponsors who blamed the protests for flagging fan viewership resulted in the NFL mandating the standing for the anthem for the 2018 season and Kaepernick lacking a job.
Reaction to the protest has been fierce on both sides of the ideological divide. There are those who condemn the kneeling no matter the reason for the protest, and those who include kneeling as a justified free speech act, particularly when it shines a light on injustice. The first group often justifies its position by separating sports from politic—athletes should “shut up and play.” The latter group sees sports and politics already intertwined; hence athletes should use their fame and big stage to speak their minds. While at loggerheads with each other, I contend that the responses from both camps reveal that football is currently our American civil religion. Where else in the United States is the national anthem sung with the Blue Angels soaring above a flag that covers the entire field while coaches wear military-inspired camouflage on their outfits? With players acting out war-like land grabs on the field and fans satisfying a sublimated need for dominance achieved through violence on the field—all under a canopy of nationalistic symbols that legitimates our most popular sport—it’s no wonder that football inspires a kind of religious zeal.
If football is our de facto civil religion, then Kaepernick and his fellow protesters are its heretics. Like most heresies, the message from the excommunicated is an affront to institutional power and the societal order that it maintains. As our president, the NFL, and several team owners have clearly demonstrated, kneeling for the anthem is the ultimate dis-ordering act. The order that it disrupts is that which is believed to make the most money for the NFL. Therefore the command to players from Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones to “stand for the anthem, toe on the line” is a command literally to get in line as a presentation for those wishing to invest in the game. This is what makes Kaepernick’s protest a bona fide example of speaking truth to power.
Unfortunately, discourse around the protest largely reflects our polarized nation. Kaepernick is either an ungrateful traitor or a courageous freedom fighter. Of course there is nuance within his stance that, if ferreted out, could lead to a more productive dialogue on the matter. If religious leaders are looking for a way to begin these kinds of discussions, they should look to an unlikely source: A politician. Congressperson and current Senate candidate from Texas Beto O’Rourke has given one of the most thoughtful responses to the question of the moral correctness of the protest. I end with an excerpt of his long answer:
The freedoms that we have were purchased not just by those in uniform, and they definitely were. But also by those who took their lives into their hands riding those Greyhound buses, the Freedom Riders in the deep South in the 1960s . . . Peaceful, non-violent protests, including taking a knee at a football game to point out that black men, unarmed . . . are being killed at a frightening level right now including by members of law enforcement, without accountability, and without justice . . . That is why they’re (the players) doing it and I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee for your rights anytime, anywhere, any place.