Would women have the right to vote today if they were told by men to only protest inside their homes? Would African Americans have equal protection under the law if the civil rights movement was confined to the churches? Would farmers and migrant workers have just working conditions in the fields if they were forced to boycott only when it suited the landowners? Would the students of Parkland (Florida) accomplish anything in terms of gun reform if they were ordered to keep their opinions inside school walls?
The history of nonviolent social reform is a history of doing what is needed without asking for permission. Women fought for suffrage by going out to the streets and making their voice heard. African Americans refused to accept that their cause was simply a religious longing by mobilizing in public. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers did not obey the demands of the growers and corporations; they built a campaign that made the plight of farm workers visible for the world to see. And the Parkland students refused to follow the policies and restrictions of their school by calling for a nationwide walk out.
What will NFL players do now that the league has an official rule against kneeling during the national anthem? Even though there has been disagreement inside the league’s ownership ranks, on May 23, 2018, team owners approved a new policy that gives players the option of staying in the locker room during the national anthem if they don’t wish to stand during the ceremonies. Under the new rule, players who choose to be on the field during the anthem will be required to stand. If a player chooses not to stand, that player’s team will be penalized by the NFL.
So the line has been drawn. How will the players respond? Will they take their protest against racism, police brutality, and systemic injustice inside where no one can see them or will they resist the order to obey and take the risk of being fined or even fired?
Time will tell. One thing is clear. The NFL owners have acted with genuine cowardice. Their call to get attention back on football is blatantly hypocritical. As if football is all they care about. As if selling beer, cars, merchandise, sex and tourism is not part of the NFL package. They say that it is important for players to honor the flag, anthem, and moment. They say that the NFL sponsored community programs is how real change is going to be made. They say that all players must stand on the field because that is what the fans want. They say that their unanimous decision respected everybody’s point of view the best they could. They say a lot. But what do the players say? What say do they have? What rights do they have to express their concerns peacefully? Who denied them the right to vote? Who silenced their voice?
As with every major social justice movement in this country-from women’s suffrage to the Parkland students fighting for gun reform — the only way that voices of dissent will be heard is for dissent to happen. The NFL owners have tried to silence their protest by hiding it in the locker room. The owners have tried to make this move about football when really it is about their own personal interests. And the owners have tried to take the attention off the issues, by making the issue about the players more than what they are sitting down for.
With that said, if history is any indicator, the owners are setting up the players to make this issue even more pressing. Whenever a hard line is drawn, courage is mustered to step over it. By raising the stakes, the owners have forced players to do things that they were not prepared to do before. As a strategy of suppression, it would have been much wiser for the owners to just let this protest carry on until people stopped caring.