It’s the perfect protest, really.
Silent, peaceful, powerful, and set against the backdrop of something Americans care about. This isn’t just a march through the streets on a lazy weekend afternoon. It’s an act of rebellion against the flag and the anthem, two symbols of this nation that still mean something to all of us.
The forum is ideal. A football field, the epicenter of Americana, the one sport that seems to rally citizens to come together, sit on their couches, drink beer, wear replica jerseys, and watch. Were it a basketball court, the outrage would be minimal – just ask former NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who staged his own sit-down protest in the mid-1990s, and has all but been forgotten since. Even in Major League Baseball, where Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado took a seat in the early-2000s, such an act was similarly overlooked. But football? Don’t mess with football.
If this wasn’t a big deal, columnists across the country wouldn’t be churning out opinions firmly entrenched on either side of this issue. Talking heads wouldn’t be devoting segment after segment to discussion of the topic. And those people you only kind of know on social media? They wouldn’t be lashing out at one another over differing viewpoints on the matter.
In today’s society, how else are you supposed to get everyone’s attention? We’ve created an atmosphere that rewards the loudest and most selfish of our species. We’ve designed online platforms that highlight how important we are and how much more cool stuff we can do than our so-called friends. Our cameras have been redesigned to take pictures of our own selves instead of the world through our eyes, and as a result the most ubiquitous type of photo we now produce literally oozes with egocentrism: the selfie.
Face it, in order to seize the public consciousness, we have to be a precise combination of brash, unique, and outlandish. And somehow, in sitting quietly while a song plays and colors are unfurled, a group of football players have managed to achieve the right mix.
In order to properly assess the magnitude of this protest, we must first acknowledge the gravity of the two symbols involved. It goes without saying, but we’re not just dealing with any flag or any tune. People have died for that flag and sacrificed their freedom for that song. Many of us have friends and relatives who have served this country, fought in battle, and ensured we can all lead better lives because of it. To minimize the significance of these icons would be foolish.
Yet we are still dealing with symbols, which only go so far to serve as tokens of that for which they stand. Take, for instance, a wedding ring. A wedding ring signifies love, commitment, fidelity, and the bond of marriage. We’re told to wear our rings always and never remove them. Should the ring be lost, is the union suddenly nullified? Of course not. Because the symbol only carries a limited amount of weight behind it. Love, commitment, fidelity, and marriage can still exist without a ring. Likewise, freedom can exist without a flag or an anthem.
Nonetheless, we honor these symbols because of what they represent, which to many of us is a life of safety and equality, without conflict or fear of persecution and oppression. So what happens when that quality of life is threatened? How are we supposed to react? Should we just ignore the warning signs and hope for the best? Should we lash out, exhibit violence, fight one another? Or should we find another way?
An athlete sits during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner and people will notice. They’ll ask him why he did it, what it meant. In an instant, he’ll have a platform for a message he needs to get across. In the process, no one will be victimized. There will be zero casualties from such a demonstration. No bloodshed, no injuries, no death. Just a quiet act of defiance that leads to bettering the welfare of others.
It’s hard for many people to stomach this. These symbols we hold so dear are being violated, they’d claim. But at their core, these symbols embody the American people. And it is our people, Americans, who are being endangered.
We’re segregating ourselves by race, color, and creed. We’re bludgeoning one another, killing each other in the streets, and rapidly making our way towards civil war. We’ve cultivated an environment that turns a blind eye to the terminal nature of the crisis at hand. If it’s not our loved one lying dead, then why should it matter? We don’t give a damn until it hits home, until it’s too late.
We have conditioned ourselves to not care. While scrolling through timelines and snapping selfies, we can ignore the world around us. Nothing we encounter, it seems, can’t be cured by posting an Instagram meme that encourages everyone to love everybody else. Love one another, guys. It’s just that simple. But your most basic girlfriend throwing flowery word porn upon the feed isn’t going to irritate the bad guys and rally the good. It might make her feel a little better about herself, about her day, but ultimately it won’t do a damn thing. This isn’t change.
We’ve forgotten what leadership looks like. It’s not merely a title or position. It’s grace under fire, poise amidst chaos, a behavior, and perhaps most importantly, an ability to impact change. Some have it, many don’t. If simply sitting down while others rise brings much needed attention to social injustice, basic human rights, and the very values upon which our nation has been founded, then it’s hard to argue against the leadership being displayed by a collection of football players.
It is the perfect protest. Pull up a chair and watch.