Is This What Activism Looks Like?
A company in which more than 70 percent of the employees are African-American. A company that brings in over $10 billion in revenue each year. A company whose five highest-paid workers are all white men. The company? The National Football League. And it’s redefining what it means to protest.
Cheerleaders, dance cams and tailgates sandwiched with protests, tension and controversy – all in the same stadium.
The recent national anthem protests in the National Football League, National Hockey League and other sports have led to heated debates over the First Amendment, players’ contracts and their ability to use sports as a platform to express beliefs.
However, most people caught up in this football frenzy have missed the true point of these protests, hampering the ability to actually improve our country and listen to others.
In recent weeks, hundreds of NFL players have chosen to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem. However, these protests are not new. The first national anthem protest happened last year when the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee because of what he called “ongoing issues with police brutality and oppression of people of color.”
After President Donald Trump spoke out against players who decided to not to stand for the anthem, dozens more joined the protest, bringing them to the forefront of national media. Despite the protests’ added publicity in recent weeks, Marcus Master Teacher Bruce Westrate believes they are not achieving their original purpose.
“[The players protesting] could get together and do a whole lot of good and fight against the issues they purport to be upset by,” Westrate said. “It seems like moral preening to me, where, for very little effort, they can seem like they’re down with the struggle.”
However, in addition to protesting, many players have begun raising money for organizations working to fight oppression. In October 2016, Kaepernick started the Colin Kaepernick Foundation .
Despite over $900,000 in donations from Kaepernick alone, many focus on the anthem protests and view them as disrespectful to the nation.
Senior football captain Seun Omonije believes the protests are a distraction to the team, but that players are still justified in demonstrating.
“A good portion of athletes grew up with struggles and have worked hard for what they have,” Omonije said. “They are fighters. To me, they are fighting for what they believe in.”
Chaplain Stephen Arbogast sees the uproar created by the national anthem protests as merely a part of the path toward being heard.
“The point of the protest is to bring awareness to something that people don’t want to talk about it,” Arbogast said. “I don’t think that it really matters what the symbol is because the whole point of the symbol, whatever it is, is to bring awareness to the topic,” Arbogast said. “If you’re going to become noticed, that is just going to be the most recent way people will be offended.”
Associate Headmaster John Ashton, however, thinks players’ using their team and their games as a platform for protests breaks team unity.
“Using that platform of a team that has been given [to players], is not a platform for your individual, rightful, dutiful, courageous, well oriented beliefs,” Ashton said. “I feel there is an obligation to the team and organization to which you are a part. If the team collectively chose to do something, perhaps then you can do something.”
“I think that making a statement on our team would be more of a distraction than a benefit, unfortunately,” Omonije said. “Honestly, I don't really think there is a major benefit to make a statement in a high school football game. The point of protesting is to call attention to an issue in hopes of change, and doing so in a limited environment probably won't lead to much change.”
Similarly, Ashton does not see the field as the ideal place for protests, though he welcomes the constructive discussions that could arise around campus.
“Let’s sit around a table and talk about issues,” Ashton said. “I’m not going to stifle that. Let’s stop class for the day and talk about these issues. But we haven’t been a place where anybody can come in and be politically active by separating themselves from the community.”
Ashton believes the discussions that follow initial protests are also crucial steps towards actual change.
“Getting people’s attention is really just step one,” Ashton said. “The next step requires the skill to sit down together, those who weren’t heard and those who are now listening, and discuss and truly understand what the other side is experiencing. Being willing to do that, suspending your own beliefs on a topic, and then as a group figuring out how to move to a better place for everyone [are the next steps].”
However, listening to opposing sides is often difficult.
“Reconciliation of opposing viewpoints is hard work,” Ashton said. “Hard work in the sense because it requires great empathy, compassion, and courage. Courage to say ‘hear me’ but also to say ‘I’ll listen.’ And then real persistence on both fronts to figure out how we move forward.”
The protests have raised awareness. However the real work of improving the nation has just begun.
“I think there is real potential in starting a conversation,” Ashton said, “but there is also a real hazard in not finishing that conversation and finding a solution that is better for all.”