When Colin Kaepernick knelt for the national anthem before every game last season, he intended to implicate the national symbols of America in its racism. It was Kaepernick’s belief that this country both was and remains fundamentally racist, hence his protest: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said at the time.
People responded to him in different ways, temperate and otherwise. The best response was always to deny the claim that American national symbols are symbols of racism and affirm that they represent the ideas on which this country is based and the culture which Americans all share. It is true that America harbored a racist tyranny for centuries, but it is also true that, as Jason Lee Steorts wrote before Colin Kaepernick registered in the political consciousness, “The idea of human equality in the Declaration of Independence was enough to overwhelm the element of racist tyranny built into the Founders’ Constitution.” American national symbols are not racist but unifying — which can be true even if you believe that racial bias still persists in America.
That response became orthogonal to national-anthem protests the moment Trump made these protests about him. Yesterday, when scores of NFL players knelt for the anthem, it could be cast not as an indictment of America but, as Michael put it, an expression of “solidarity with their fellow athletes.” Ray Lewis had been a Kaepernick critic, but was kneeling on the sidelines in London. Tom Brady displayed a Make America Great Again hat in his locker during the election, but backed the protests in an interview. Across the league, players knelt and locked arms — not to oppose the American idea, but rather to oppose the president’s statement that they and their teammates “should not be allowed” to protest. The national anthem did not represent our unifying ideas or shared culture yesterday: It represented Donald Trump. And one is eminently more contestable than the other.
It may be true that, as Charlie says, the protestors will be seen as “disparaging the core symbols of the nation.” That’s one reason why this move could pay off for Trump politically. But only a handful of players had knelt for the anthem until Trump tried to bully the whole league into obedience. Of course the players, coaches, and owners would react the way they did. By inflaming this debate, the president did more to render the flag and anthem contested symbols than Kaepernick ever could have.