CHICAGO — Until a few weeks ago, National Football League stadiums were about the last places anyone would go for a lesson in patriotism, First Amendment rights and civic responsibility.
This is what I saw Sunday afternoon at an NFL game in New Jersey: An African-American artist, Brian McKnight, delivering a moving rendition of the national anthem.
And this is what I saw Monday night at an NFL game in Chicago: Four African-American athletes raising their fists in protest during the playing of that same anthem.
Freedom of expression is a powerful force in this country, and ever since Colin Kaepernick sat down last month while every other participant in a preseason game stood up, professional football players have reminded us that it’s a wonderfully American thing to honor your conscience and advocate for social change in the most public of forums.
Here in Chicago, Malcolm Jenkins, Steven Means, Ron Brooks, and Marcus Smith II were the Eagles who raised their fists after a giant American flag was unfurled at Soldier Field. They should be proud of their willingness to take this stance, and all right-minded people around the league should be proud of their actions, too.
Consider the following: Jenkins said he is the grandson of a Marine and Korean War veteran who was awarded the Purple Heart. Brooks said his girlfriend served in the Navy and is the daughter of a state trooper in Louisiana.
“I have the utmost respect for law enforcement and people who have put their lives on the line,” Brooks said. “And that will never change.”
Yes, this was a thoughtful act by thoughtful people. Jenkins, the Eagles’ union rep and organizer of the protest, ran his plans by friends in the military. He has been in contact with the police commissioner in Philadelphia, and he wants to continue finding ways through his foundation to aid kids in underserved communities.
But he didn’t believe that locking arms in a show of unity would help his cause. “It doesn’t address the actual issue,” he said. “Although it looks great because you’re all together, the honest truth is that some guys on the team actually don’t care about the issues, which is fine.”
So Jenkins wanted and needed a statement that left no room for interpretation. “I think you immediately understand what the issue is,” he said, “when you see a black man raise his fist.”
Make no mistake: It isn’t easy volunteering for social-media scorn and racial hostility from those who have forgotten the equal-opportunity tenets that are supposed to define us. The default position for far too many — that multimillionaire athletes have no business assailing the very nation that provided them the opportunity to become rich and famous — is a losing argument for people who conveniently forget that the multimillionaire athletes created their own opportunities, and often feel a moral obligation to use their platforms to help those without a voice.
“Whenever you talk about race or just anything to do with social injustice,” Jenkins said, “usually it’s a hard conversation to have. … A lot of arguments you hear is, ‘Do it on your own time. Do it in a different way.’ Well, the truth of the matter is, if you do it in a different way, that just allows you to ignore the issue.
“When you talk about real change, although a protest in itself doesn’t change anything, it forces people to talk about it and it tugs on the social conscience of the citizens. So that’s the biggest thing, how to get this topic in the minds of all those around the country and make them confront their own beliefs and thoughts and reasonings behind what they support and what they don’t. And usually to do that, you have to disrupt something.”
The Eagles didn’t really disrupt anything before their 29-14 victory over the Bears. No team or league rule was violated, the game went on as scheduled, and Carson Wentz did nothing to temper the expectation that he’ll become a big star soon.
But still, this was a pretty big stage that required some pretty big, well, you know, for a staged protest. Monday Night Football isn’t only a weekly TV program watched by millions; it is an institution to middle-aged fans of my generation who grew up on Cosell, Meredith and Gifford and the breathless anticipation of those halftime highlights from out-of-market Sunday games that weren’t available on our friendly neighborhood cable and dish packages and online services for the simple reason that those things didn’t exist.
But in the 1970s, years after sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists during the medal-ceremony anthem at the Summer Games of Mexico City, the idea that an African-American athlete would raise his fist during the anthem on Monday Night Football was still as far-fetched as the notion of a mobile phone that could double as a TV.
The NFL was an unforgiving place for those who didn’t conform to the expectations of an overwhelmingly white power structure, and not much has changed all these years later. In this league, the punishment and pain are guaranteed but the contracts are not, making pro football players the most disposable team-sport athletes. Front-office executives cart out the broken bodies and cart in the fresh ones, and with the NFL the most popular game and prime-time show going, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot the union can do about it.
Kaepernick made his bold stand, anyway, taking the lead by taking a seat and then a knee to protest police brutality and uneven socioeconomic access in a racially divided land. He absorbed a predictable social-media pounding from critics who had never lived through the indignity of, say, being followed around a convenience store by a clerk whose suspicions were inspired only by the color of a customer’s skin.
Kaepernick put his second-string neck on the first-string line, knowing full well he’d be accused of being a traitor, an ingrate, and worse. Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall was among the NFL players who followed Kaepernick’s example and took a knee that cost him a couple of endorsement deals with corporate sponsors who released cowardly statements supporting Marshall’s right to protest while punishing him for exercising it.
Monday night, Jenkins and friends decided to advance the ball. Doug Pederson knew it was coming and made Jenkins a game captain, a veteran move by a rookie coach. The cameramen scrambled into position as the Eagles lined up for the anthem, focusing on Jenkins. The veteran safety raised his right fist as the song played. In the same formation, Jason Peters, an African-American tackle, proudly planted his hand over his heart, another great sight to see.
The night before, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had said he respected his players’ desire “to speak out and change the community” and that he wanted them “to use that voice.” Do the players really believe that? Does pro football’s largely African-American workforce truly believe a punitive, hammer-wielding commissioner and the face of that overwhelmingly white power structure wants social activism as part of the 16-game schedule?
It doesn’t seem to matter; the players aren’t backing off. Jenkins said he experienced a “lonely feeling” during his protest, and Brooks said he felt like he was “out there on the edge, where you understand the consequences that will come.”
But these football players listened to their hearts, anyway, the potential consequences be damned. These Eagles didn’t need to hit anybody to show they are tough, strong men.