A strange thing happened while most professional sports were gone, closed by coronavirus.
The stand-or-kneel debate, prompted by Colin Kaepernick’s attitude during the national anthem 2016 and which has since melted, has reignited – bigger than before, and this time with an unexpected twist.
Today, athletes may need to explain why they chose to stand, not kneel, under “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I would have had a hard time believing a year ago,” said Charles Ross, history professor and director of African American Studies at the University of Mississippi. “I would have said something really happened in America to cause it. What is clear is what happened in America and Minneapolis on May 25 fundamentally changed people̵
The protest movement that grew after George Floyd’s death while in police custody has a deep connection with Kaepernick. People are protesting against racial inequality and police brutality, just as Kaepernick had done. And many, including some police officers and officers, kneel in gestures of unity and respect.
Now the questions and the gesture have gone back to the sports world. In recent years, most athletes have avoided getting stuck in it. They can blend into the background, behind league protocols to stand or among others’ quiet comfort.
Even most of them considered leaders and allies of Kaepernick, in places like the NFL and NBA, found reasons not to kneel.
The difference in 2020, when sports are starting to emerge from their pandemic temporary suspensions, is that almost every professional athlete will be forced to choose an attitude.
“You can’t sit now in this post-George Floyd period we’re in and say, ‘We will continue to take this safe position,'” Ross said. “No. Either you have a problem with racism or you don’t.”
Rachel Hill, a football player, found out about it first. When the National Women’s Soccer League began its season last Saturday night, Hill’s Chicago Red Stars and their opponents stood up for the advance music. Most players took a knee.
Hill, a 25-year-old attacker, remained standing. She bowed her head and put her hand on the shoulder of a black teammate, Casey Short. Just a year or four ago, Hill may have been hailed for her discreet support for combating racial equality.
Not 2020. Days later, after a barrage of criticism and debate online, Hill felt compelled to defend his posture in a lengthy statement and condemned what awaits most athletes when the games resume.
“In a way, it testifies to the genius of Kaepernick’s protest tactics, which squeak silently during the anthem,” said Eric Burin, a history professor at the University of North Dakota and editor of a collection of essays called “Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent and Patriotism. in America’s 21st Century. “
“When you read Hill’s statement it was gut-wrenching – tears were released, straight talks were held – and as much as protest tactics are designed to cause discomfort, Kaepernick’s tactics still work.”
However, the debate has become so polarizing that even passivity can become political. A completely professional softball team ended last month when its boss appeared to boast to President Trump on Twitter that her players had been in charge of the anthem. And when New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees told an interviewer in June that he thought kneeling protests were the “unsatisfactory flag” – an attitude that has remained unchanged for him since 2016 – he was quickly forced to backtrack amid a hail of criticism from fans and teammates.
The discussion will surely spread as more leagues plan to restart, and as more players kneel, and it is intended to resume its oversized place in political discourse as the fall election approaches. It can even end, at least in some leagues, the long American tradition of playing the national anthem before sports events.
When Major League Soccer resumes its season on Wednesday inside a so-called bubble in Florida, it will not play a home run, apparently because there will be no fans. But league officials have also discussed ending the practice permanently when teams return to their home cities.
“Which in itself would cause understanding on many sides,” Burin said.
The dramatic change to focus on those who chose to stand, rather than kneel, could hardly be imagined when Kaepernick took a quiet stance by not standing up for the anthem – sitting first and then kneeling, after consulting with a retired Army Green Beret, Nate Boyer.
Only a few other top athletes followed, but it was enough to divide and become Americans, including a gas-throwing president and an administration that saw political advantage in rejecting anthem protests.
Leagues and organizations sped through the furrows, mostly without mercy, until the issue faded. They won’t be able to avoid it now.
A majority of Americans, 52 percent, now approve of NFL players kneeling for the anthem to protest the police killings of African Americans, according to a Yahoo News / YouGov opinion poll in June. Only 37 percent objected. That’s a significant shift from the group’s 2016 survey, when only 28 percent thought Kaepernick’s gesture was “appropriate.” That support reached 35 percent in 2018.
Some leagues have fine-tuned their anthem policy in recent years and then adjusted them more recently as public opinion changed. For example, the United States Football Federation created a policy that required all players to stand for the 2017 anthem – after the women’s star Megan Rapinoe became one of the first star athletes to follow Kaepernick’s leadership – just to cancel last month.
Others seem to be strengthening the issue to return, but without a position.
In the NBA, which plans to quarantine itself at Disney World in Florida this month to conclude its season, Commissioner Adam Silver has been unauthorized about how the league will handle the likelihood of players kneeling before the anthem. The league has had a standalone policy for decades, he pointed out to Time magazine recently.
“I also understand the role of protest, and I think we will deal with that situation when it presents itself,” Silver said.
Major League Baseball, which hopes to start a shortened season later this month, only had one player on its knees in 2017. It took no clear stance then. Its abstinence can be tested this month.
The NFL, which was in the middle of the controversy, banned knees in 2018 and instead chose a hide-or-seek (in the locker room) election. But Commissioner Roger Goodell recently showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement and, in his own pivot, for player protests.
“We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong because we didn’t listen to NFL players before and encourage everyone to speak out and protest peacefully,” he said.
Everything promises to make the anthem have to watch TV again this fall.
And with paler and bar stools still mostly off-limits, the patter will ricochet mostly via social media. That’s what happened to NWSL, where the anthem threatened to obscure the league’s season opener last weekend.
“It’s so interesting, the weight the knee has assumed,” Burin said. “Why this gesture? Why is it so important, as opposed to putting your hand on someone’s shoulder or bending your head? “
On Tuesday, Short and her Chicago Red Stars teammate Julie Ertz, who comforted a sobbing Short during the anthem last Saturday, tweeted each of a long statement, a kind of essay entitled “Our Story.”
“Currently, every time the national anthem is played, our country continues to become more and more divided on what the visual symbol of unity looks like,” they wrote. “Through our continuous conversations, we wanted to make sure that whatever we decided on was not an empty gesture.”
Among those conversations, they said, were emotional conversations with Hill, who had literally stood beside them.
In his statement, Hill acknowledged that he had been torn about how to approach the anthem.
“I chose to stand because of what the flag itself means to my military family members and to me, but I 100% support my comrades,” she wrote.
She added: “I wholeheartedly support the Black Lives Matter movement. I support and will do my part in the fight against current inequality. As a white athlete, it is the way for me to be diligently anti-racist. “
Hill tried to have it both ways. But if there is anything certain about the anthem debate, renewed and turned inside and out in these nuance-free times, it is like this: There is little room for such an attitude.